Civis romanus sum

I didn’t change my Facebook profile photo to a rainbow. I hope my gay and lesbian friends (who now have basic American’s citizens’ rights), aren’t offended.

But also, I hope they are. I hope we all are. Because yes, this is a huge victory, but it isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.

As I’ve said before, if you’re an American, and your rights as an American are threatened or cheapened in any way, then all our rights are threatened. If we continue to treat, officially or unofficially, our transgender, black, immigrant, or other “minority” citizens differently, differently than other U.S. citizens, we are not doing this right.

“Equal protection under law,” that’s what it says. Not “Equal for some people, sort of, when we feel like it.”

Let’s quit it. The next time you see a fellow U.S. citizen, or hear about a fellow U.S. citizen, being denied rights, you need to speak up. You should feel threatened. Until that’s real, until all U.S. citizens enjoy all U.S. freedoms, turning my photo into a rainbow isn’t really helping. It’s actually kind of rude.

Second, I also want to think of that rainbow as a protected, safe space for gays and lesbians to celebrate without my dopey “ally” self butting in. Some of us straights are not exactly with it in terms of really knowing what it means to be an ally. Some people don’t understand, and never will. I stand in solidarity with my gay and lesbian citizens by appreciating. I’m very happy for you, and you understand how far we have to go.

Chasing the dragon

“Birthday celebrations are a cakewalk at Sonic Drive-In as the nation’s largest drive-in restaurant chain celebrates its 50th Birthday with a Birthday Cake Shake. Sonic invites customers to share in the celebration with a 50th Birthday Cake Shake: a tasty blend of real white sheet cake, icing, soft serve and colorful sprinkles all in one cup.”

Sonic press release, May 1, 2003

In May 2003, Sonic Drive-In had a Birthday Cake Shake on their menu, all month, for one month only. There was a Sonic on Assembly Street in Columbia, S.C., where I lived at the time, and I got a shake every day I could all month long. And then it was gone. I was 21 years old.

You know the McRib people? The people who get all pumped when the McRib is available? Who travel around to where it’s released? Who proselytize the wonder that is the McRib? I am like them, but for a menu item that never comes back. I got my hopes up in 2013, thinking, well, it’s the 60th anniversary of Sonic, maybe they’ll bring it back. They did not.

The Sonic Birthday Cake Shake was real. You know when you eat cake and ice cream on the same plate at a kid’s birthday party and they touch? It was that, drinkable. The cake crumbs gave the shake texture. The icing gave it varying flavors. The ice cream, you know, is ice cream.

Another local fast-food-itarium has a “birthday cake shake.” It is an abomination. I had one a few years ago. The texture was wrong and the taste was wrong. Like they didn’t use actual cake, or they didn’t blend it right, and they used some kind of strange flavoring compound to try to make up the actual taste of birthday cake (like that weird mixed shooter they make with Baileys or Franjelico where it tastes like cake, but it isn’t cake, like it has a baked taste, but it’s just chemicals and liquid). And then the biggest sin, and this they do with all their shakes, is the shakes come frozen in plastic cups with foil yogurt lids. When someone orders one, they pull the frozen cup and stick it under a blender. From the drive-through at this particular establishment near my house, I can see this sin being committed. That is not a milkshake, my friends.

One of my grandmothers worked as a soda jerk in a drugstore in the 1940s. She scooped ice cream. She made real milkshakes. When my dad was trying to gain weight for sports in school, she made him milkshakes with raw eggs. I’ve had one. You can’t even tell. A real milkshake is a symphony of creaminess and sweetness and refreshingness. There’s a place in Athens, Ga. I go for a shake every time I’m there, because they make them right, and they even come in those paper cones in the metal holders. For the record, I don’t really like dairy, or milk, or ice cream very much, but when you find the pinnacle, the Platonic ideal of something, even if it’s not your favorite, you can still appreciate the greatness. You order the shake. I usually can only have a few sips, but in those sips, I swear, something transcendental happens.

So yesterday I got an email that a local burger establishment was celebrating its 5th birthday with free birthday cake shakes as a thank-you to anyone who came to the restaurant today. Last night, I wrote a heartfelt plea to my friends to meet me out for that shake.

“So, Public Service Announcement to you bros. I got an email about this shake today cause I’m on some Yeah! Burger email list and I feel like it is very important that I pass it on because of the significance The Birthday Cake Shake had in my history and how much it mattered to my life.”

— email from Jessica Clary to assorted friends, June 9, 2015

My friends assembled. We went to YEAH! Burger. We got the shakes.

And they were good, but the texture was wrong. The taste was there, but the original Sonic-y ground-up-cake-in-ice-cream just wasn’t there.

From Cantonese, and now in English, there’s the saying “Chasing the dragon.” Drug addicts fantasize that the next dose or hit is going to be THE ONE, but it never happens. The ultimate experience with the drug isn’t there, but the idea of it is there. I don’t think I’m addicted to the shake itself, I am fascinated and intrigued and driven by the PURSUIT of this perfect shake.

There are three ways this can work out, I guess:

1. Sonic brings back the shake, it’s as good as I remember, everything is amazing.

2. Sonic never brings back the shake. I never experience anything like this shake. I chase this dragon for the rest of my life.

And then the worst, 3. Sonic brings back the shake, and it’s not how I remember it. Either they change it, or my brain synapses don’t connect the same way they did 12 years ago and it doesn’t deliver.

Dear Sonic, I implore you, do this for me.


As more and more southern people move or travel, and as more and more of us are forced to hide our accents (and wear shoes in public, etc.) as to blend in, some of y’all may not be used to our quirky conversational idioms. Like when we will say, “Oh, bless her heart,” to mean, “Lord, I guess she can’t help that she’s totally awful.” Or, “Oh, please excuse me” instead of “Get out of my way, you imbecile, this is a hallway and not your own personal loitering space.”

Or, for example, when we are riding next to each other on an airplane and you spend an hour with your elbow shoved into my ribs, and I say “I’m sorry,” when I move and it disrupts your typing, what I really mean is “You are the one who needs to apologize, and your color-coded Excel spreadsheet is ugly.” And when I accidentally kick my bag into your foot, because your foot is under my seat, and I say “Excuse me,” I mean “Move your foot out of my personal space as fast as you can before I call the flight attendant and have her remove it from your leg.” And when I say “Thank you,” because you stood at the end of our row talking on the phone instead of getting your suitcase down out of the overhead and therefore blocking all of us in rows 23-40 from exiting the plane, I really mean “Please go away from my sight and do not exist in my presence again.”

(Side note: When an airplane is landing, and they tell you to stow your laptop away, it’s not because of the electronic interference. It’s because if we hit an air pocket on descent, or skid out on the runway, that’s a hefty projectile with pointy corners to be suddenly heaving toward someone’s head at 200 miles per hour. Just saying, not every FAA law is moronic bureaucracy designed to inconvenience you.)

Please don’t let our politeness be mistaken for weakness. I will gladly forgive, but I never forget.

Who watches the watchdogs? Bigger watchdogs.

When Rolling Stone magazine realized they may have some problems in a story, and then the underlying reporting process of the story, they called The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate. They asked Columbia’s Dean for an outside investigation into how the magazine got their Nov. 19, 2014 story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” so wrong. Rolling Stone agreed to cooperate fully, and that the Columbia Journalism Review would investigate possible lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking for the story, for as long as they needed to write whatever they found.

Today, the Columbia Journalism Review posted their report. And yeah, did they find some lapses. They found more than lapses. They found procedural and methodological practices that effectively halted the gathering of additional information that could have kept this entire thing from happening.

The Rolling Stone article goes up against UVA’s administration for stonewalling them, UVA goes against Rolling Stone for portraying them in false light. But, the CJR report doesn’t place the blame on stonewalling admins or potential exaggerations. CJR skewers the process of reporting and editing itself, and that’s what made this story fall apart.

For the uninitiated, here’s the nickel tour of the backstory. A writer did a story on a student, called Jackie in the story, who said she had been sexually assaulted at an on-campus University of Virginia fraternity party, and felt inadequate systems were in place to help her afterwards. Jackie was given two choices: She could file a public criminal police report or she could file a complaint with the college’s judicial sexual misconduct board. She chose to proceed with the college’s sexual misconduct board.

(Why do colleges have these options? Well, that’s because of Title IX, the governing document that women and men should have equal opportunities and resources to succeed in school. Under Title IX, student rape survivors are allowed to protect their identity by pursuing a solution within the university. This was, ideally, supposed to protect survivors from the potential fallout of having their names known publicly, and creating a hostile environment for learning. Student judicial affairs investigations, just like a student’s grades or other private information, are confidential. School officials can’t share them. In the typical student judicial affairs cases (underage drinking in a dorm, per se, or allegations of cheating), these really aren’t things where student affairs needs a lot of outside police intervention.

Some survivors do want to face their attacker, but not necessarily put themselves through the rigor and scrutiny of actually filing public charges and going to court for a public trial, and as a college student in an on-campus incident, the survivor’s choice is the final say on how the case will be handled. A 19-year-old may not want to delay her (or his, or their) college career, or forego anonymity, by going to the police. But if a student pursues the college judicial affairs track, everything that happens there falls under FERPA protection (Family Education Right to Privacy). This is why your parents can’t call your professors for your grades. This is why your underage drinking in a dorm might just be a violation in your sealed college records and not on your public criminal record.)

Then, the Rolling Stone reporter actually tracked through some of these allegedly inadequate investigations and resources for survivors on the UVA campus, explaining that since Jackie chose the more-secretive college investigation system, many details of the investigation into other students’ conduct, the fraternity and other university departments were secret too. The same system to protect Jackie protects every other student involved. Of course, this was an issue for the Rolling Stone reporter trying to get information on the alleged attacker or attackers, or to even get any concrete information about the university’s investigation into or reactions to the case at all.

But the reporter and the editor believed their source, and they trusted her story. They published it. And then some things started to unravel.

Other writers and editors were already criticizing the validity of the story, some before it even came out.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review article (on their investigation into the reporting, fact-checking and editing of the story), after the Rolling Stone article was published, the writer called Jackie, and Jackie thanked her, many times. She said Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.” So the writer decided to ask one of the nagging unanswered questions. Now that the subject felt comfortable with the published piece, she asked about the lifeguard, a co-worker at the aquatic center where Jackie worked, who had been the one to lure her to the party in the first place and oversaw her assault. The reporter said the name would never be published, but just in case, for a reporter’s due diligence, she asked for his name. Jackie said a name, but then stumbled. She didn’t know how to spell it. She guessed at a few possible spellings.

This was a red flag for the reporter. How could this woman not know her attacker’s name? She said they met working together at the college pool, and then he asked her to go with him to dinner and a function at the fraternity house. She said she was now terrified of him. How can someone be so flippant about remembering this person’s name? A person who had played a tremendous role in her ordeal?

They spoke again, on Dec. 4, the actual date on the issue of the magazine the story is printed in, and by the end of the call, the reporter had “serious doubts.” She called her editor, and later that day the magazine published an editor’s note retracting that part of the story.

OK, you’re caught up now. Rolling Stone screwed up. But how? These magazines have large staffs, employ fact-checking departments and hire top writers and editors in their fields. How did they screw up something this important this badly?

Well, the Columbia Journalism Review found out how, and none of it is exactly rocket-science-level stuff. It’s simple things like checking derogatory statements, going to subjects prepared with details and then using them, and finding information to corroborate Jackie’s statements. Maybe not her entire story needed complete corroboration, but some of the threads could have been followed more thoroughly.

This is a fascinating story to me because I work at a college and in journalism. I work with FERPA and understand student judiciary process. I understand a reporter’s responsibility to follow leads and threads and corroborate and independently investigate and verify a subject’s account. This presents challenges for the college bound by the federal protections FERPA provides, and challenges for the reporter—but not impossibilities. The CJR article points out specific areas and actions the reporter could have taken completely outside of FERPA-protected data to corroborate information. If a piece of information is tough to get, it’ll probably be worth the work. It will help either by making your story more credible, or by exposing a hole in your story. If you can’t find more information to fill that hole, or if that hole leads to more holes, you realize that you’re being led into a journalistic neitherworld, where things you write can’t be proven, and you can leave that person out of the story, or make them a small paragraph in the middle, while you reshape your story to be about the information you can corroborate and stand by.

I encourage you to read the report. It is, as CJR says, a piece of journalism to examine a failure of journalism. It’s great advice and education on how to be sure you’re covering a subject comprehensively, and it’s a great analysis on how a system that has produced a prolific history of quality investigative journalism failed this time.

The Columbia Journalism Review article is online here. The original Rolling Stone article has since been retracted online, but is available in the print copy of the Dec. 4, 2014 issue No. 1223. (Sidenote: the issue also has an article about Dave Grohl, reviews of One Direction’s album “Four” and one of the “Hunger Games” films, plus a $350 set of headphones in a Holiday Gift Guide that I think would look really good on me.)

To goodness

If you watched “Breaking Bad,” or even if you didn’t, you should be watching “Better Call Saul.” It’s funny and smart and heartbreaking and has all the fun of a rogue-lawyer primetime basic cable legal drama, but with this lovely thing that, heretofore, I have really only seen in women in network dramas: the main character is hell-bent on being good, working hard and doing the right thing.

At this point in the series (I just finished episode 8), Saul Goodman is still Jimmy McGill, and he’s the Leslie Knope of grinding out a “living” getting $140 a pop writing wills for old people. He’s enthusiastic. He says “thank you” a lot. He tries.

He gets a white suit made because he sees it on “Matlock.” He drives a Suzuki Esteem. He gets his law degree via correspondence school in secret, so he doesn’t do anything to infringe on the time he spends on his mailroom gig. His brother, even though a respected lawyer, is Chuck, not Charles. Chuck and Jimmy. He isn’t trying to game the system, he’s trying to find problems and fix them. He wants to help. He is trying really, really hard.

And whether or not you know (uh, spoiler alert I guess if you didn’t watch “Breaking Bad”) that it pays off in a divergent path, seeing his origin story of being a guy who is really trying to follow the rules and work hard, well, it’s really great.

A lot of people struggle endlessly with the desire to be good. I want to be a good person. I want to be dependable, accountable. I want to be recognized for hard work and accomplishments I earned and worked for, not my lucky breaks. I want to do the right thing. And this eats at me. It leads to a lot of regrets and worry. Did I tip that guy enough at that pizza place a month ago? Did that person think I was copping an attitude when he called me at home on he weekend about something that isn’t really my job, and I helped him, but maybe not as enthusiastically as I should have? What about my thoughts? Are they positive and benign? Am I secretly feeling differently?

I don’t know. I mean, dang. That’s on some deep philosophical level sometimes. But, I guess, I’ve never really seen someone do that through sort of calm commitment. Leslie Knope did it with boundless enthusiasm and outward-facing esprit de corps, but to watch Jimmy McGill decide he’s had enough, and he doesn’t have to take it anymore and just do it with a calm, rational, well, this is how it is, in his new “Matlock” suit, being obscenely polite to a woman who can’t come up with the $140 she needs to get her will from him, and it just, man it hits me hard.

I want to be good. There are tough obstacles, but I do not indulge that whim, but I’m not exactly doing it enthusiastically. And I’ve never seen that aspect of personality directly represented on tv before, and so, that’s why I’ve watched this episode of “Better Call Saul” three times today.