From Birmingham to Wetumpka: Find me this weekend!

Hey look world, it’s ME! I’ve got lots of exciting news, and I’ll keep it short and sweet for now. In the next couple of weeks, each of these items (except maybe number 5) will get its own post.

  1. Last month, I was one of eight authors included in the anthology Eight Mystery Writers You Should Be Reading Now. Hank Phillipi  Ryan wrote the foreword. I’m kind of blown away to have my name in a book alongside honest-to-God award-winners. EightCover
  2. In other book news, on February 17, you can buy The Case of the Red-handed Rhesus, my sequel to The Marriage at the Rue MorgueCaseOfRedHandedRhesusFront
  3. I’ll be on a panel at Murder in the Magic City on February 6th, (aka this Saturday) in Homewood, AL (it’s near Birmingham).
  4. The following day, February 7th, I’ll be on a panel at Murder on the Menu at the Wetumpka Public Library.
  5. And, best of all, only one of my children has slightly maimed me this month. And it wasn’t Sam. And it’s only a flesh wound, I swear.

Stay tuned for updates, pictures, and odd commentary from the trenches.

The Power in the Song

DSC_0288In one of my earliest memories, mom lifts me out of an amp case. “Honey, you’re getting way too big for that.” I am probably a year and a half old.

I’m driven by music; I grew up vibrating in four-four time. I never believed in love, probably because I always imagined I’d fuck my life up by getting together with a musician. Instead I lucked into this academic who isn’t a big fan of concerts and guitars, who anchors me instead with the kind of harmony that doesn’t need sound.

He understands how I thrive on the other, though.

Last year on our anniversary, Scott stayed home with the kids so I could drive to Birmingham and see The Head and the Heart. In his opinion, he missed getting a sore back. I would have lost out on so much more. Because seeing a good band perform, dancing invisible in the crowd, singing along with every song, these things mend a gaping breach, a soul-chasm that rends and must be re-sewn often.

This past summer, I tried to see Amanda Fucking Palmer, but I went to the wrong stage at the right venue and accidentally fell in love with Songs of Water. Not that I wasn’t pissed about missing AFP. Just that I had so much fun that it was worth it.

I’ve worried about the kids for years now. I always had access to live music as a child, and it’s something we’ve never given them. They’ve absorbed what little we’ve offered. They adore the really bad cover-show Six Flags puts on for Fright Fest. They rocked out when we went to see the Wiggles a few years back for fuck’s sake.

They want to dance in the crush and pulse with the drums. But Caroline’s sensory processing issues and Sam’s behavior problems have made concerts impractical choices, at best. She melts unexpectedly, and he’s still apt to vanish without warning. Nonetheless, when I found out Houndsmouth was coming to Athens, Georgia, about three hours away from us, I hit an impasse.

I mumbled my way out of The Head and the Heart thing with the kids. They had school the next day and I didn’t sit down once in four hours. They aren’t as into AFP as I am, so I dodged that bullet, too. (Just as well, since I went to the wrong concert.)

But they share my taste in music. Houndsmouth is probably Caroline’s favorite band right now. Sam’s still only eight, arguably too young (though by whose standards I’ve begun to wonder). But Caroline just turned twelve. I couldn’t justify leaving her behind again. So I packed earplugs, made sure she wore practical shoes with good insoles, and got her a ticket for her birthday.

Best. Decision. Ever.

2015-09-29 21.34.54She stomped in time and withstood the press of the crowd. She understood without being told when to clap her hands above her head and scream for more. She seemed to sing every line, even to songs she’d never before heard.

And I knew without question that I’ve waited far too long for this. I’ve let asshole suburban values stand between my kids and something fundamental. And make no mistake, this is my responsibility.

Scott is not at fault here. We’re a parenting team, yes. I’d never commit to anything so momentous without his support, and any real decisions are made by the two of us, not by me in rambling blog essays. But I want to be clear that I’m pissed at myself here, not him. He’s not standing around hovering hen-like, trying to hold them back.

I should have known from my own experiences how important this is. I should have been taking Caroline to shows for years now, and I need to get her to another one soon. More than that, next time, I need to take her brother, even if I have to fasten him to my side with superglue.

Rock-and-roll isn’t an adult-only experience. Kids need it, too, mine more than most. They need to hear music when they can feel it. They need to go to the place where the band telepathically supplies the lyrics and the audience amplifies the song. They need to be assimilated into a whole far larger than the sum of its parts. They need to metamorphosize into the thing they are singing and emerge rejuvenated from the collective. They need to become the fabric that stitches itself whole, even as new edges fray and shred.

Music does its own teaching without lecture aids or slide projectors. Those things have their places, even for the artists themselves. But the love begins in the experience. Concerts are the first places Caroline and Sam will completely see their own potential to create.

Why in the hell have I withheld that?

I can’t remember any longer.


Come see me in Bessemer

This Saturday, August 29, I’ll be appearing with a group of other Alabama Authors at the Bessemer Public Library’s first annual Local Author Book Signing Extravaganza from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Of course, I’ll be signing and selling copies of The Marriage at the Rue Morgue.

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Even better, I’ll have a few advance copies of my next book, The Case of the Red Handed Rhesus (due out this November) to give to a few lucky winners!



However, I will not be wearing my Halloween Costume. The literary world can only take so much of my awesome at once.

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Hope you can come out for a fantastic event!


That’s not my name

DSC_0288I didn’t expect to post again so soon. My plan is to write and schedule. But I have a rant and nobody but the internet to talk to at the witching hour.


My name, my full name, is Jessie Bishop Powell.  But I get a lot of mail for the following people who don’t exist:


Mrs. Scott Merriman.

Mr. And Mrs. Scott Merriman

Dr. and Mrs. Scott Merriman

Well, Dr. Merriman exists. That’s Scott. But that other person is a figment. My first name is not Mrs. My last name is not Merriman. And no, it is not acceptable to hold onto a titular formula from an earlier era  when women’s identities were subsumed beneath their husbands’.

That's not my name

I also get mail for the following people who, while they exist, piss me off:

Mrs. Jessie Powell

Mrs. Powell

Again. My first name is not Mrs. And as a title? Scott didn’t have to change his title to get married. Why the fuck do I have to? If you must reduce me to a title, then make it Ms. But frankly, I’d be happier if you called me Jessie. This has been an issue since six minutes after we said our vows.

My students struggle with this. I’ve given up and let them call me Professor, though I emphasize my preference for my first name. I haven’t got a Ph.D. The title is only sort of accurate. But they otherwise heap millions of other titles on my head, and that’s worse.

Scott only faces a little bit of this problem. He does have a Ph.D. and prefers to be called Dr. Merriman, but every semester has a few students who can’t seem to do it. But he is surrounded by people who validate his identity as Dr. Merriman. People can’t seem to pronounce Merriman and turn it into the same thing as the dictionary. But if you correct them they fucking apologize and at least try to get it right. They don’t think it’s okay to keep screwing it up.

He always got it about my name. There was never a dumbass machismo moment when he decided it was something of a sacrifice for him to surrender me to my own name. And I never had a problem with using only his when we named the kids. For the record, if I could have chosen my name, Merriman would have been very fucking cool. But I have a tremendous amount emotionally invested in my identity. I’m Jessie Bishop Powell. Besides Merriman, the only name I would ever want is Bradshaw, my mother’s maiden name, because my grandfather meant a tremendous amount to me. And if I ever did change my name, it would be to tack Merriman on as a title. Not a hyphenation.

You want to give me a title I’ll answer to? Make me Jessie Bishop Powell, Merriman.

I don’t do it because it would immediately be hyphenated, few would get the point, some of those who did get it would trivialize it (just like they do my very real heartbreak at being reduced to Mrs. Anything), and fewer still would realize that it was me reminding the world that the court jester was not just funny. Typically, the court jester also was the only one who could speak the truth when nobody was listening.

I got yet another piece of mail today for Mrs. Scott Merriman. I attended yet another class for Mrs. Powell. And it’s midnight, and I’m crying, and I can’t sleep, because I feel so damned alone in this town.

The mail was from someone who interacted only with me. Never Scott. Who has e-mailed several times with me and seen my signature every one.

The class was at a place where my first name is completely rejected, where children’s names are learned carefully and with precision, but where I have been told I must use a title and my last name because I’m an adult, as if adults should have less not more invested in what they want to be called. They haven’t figured out that Scott is a Dr., or I’m sure they’d be all over tacking it right on there, because they equate titles with respect.

If you know me at all, you know that I hate formality, and I hate being reduced to a title. I find them dehumanizing. Why is it okay to want a title but not okay to not want one? Why do I have to explain my motives? My college didn’t have professors who stood on ceremony. They were on a first name basis with their students, and that fucking mattered. It increased my respect for them, not the other way around.

A lot of people think it’s a joke. They think I’m kidding. And when they figure out I’m deadly serious, they tell me to chill out. They think it doesn’t matter. They think that it’s a small thing, and they don’t understand why I get so upset.

People who ought to know better can’t see that I’m being dehumanized. They hear my hurt but focus on other things instead, completely invalidating my emotions. They hurt my feelings unintentionally and still don’t understand why I’m so upset. The only other people who understand this are other women in exactly the same position, but many of them like to use their correct last name with a title. I do not.

There are lots of Mrs. And Ms. Powells out there. There are fucktons of Mrs. Merrimans. There is only one Jessie Bishop Powell, and that’s the best thing about my name. The best thing in the world is that it’s completely unique. I’m like fucking Tigger over here, people. Google it in quotation marks and you’ll only get me. And that’s not conceit, it’s a claim to identity.

Do I want those around me to address me by my full name? Shit, no. Too formal.

But I like Jessie. There’s nothing wrong with calling me Jessie. And I wish people would start respecting it.

Summer School Part 2 of 3

Here’s a continuation of the text language I wish I could use when grading. As a reminder, this applies to maybe a tenth of the people I teach. I’m not even writing it out of irritation with my students in particular, but because I’m in a completely grumpy mood, have been so for months now, and I need to snark about something. 


Of Holidays and Flags

DSC_0288July 4, 2015

The Confederate flag advanced from the right, while Caroline, Sam, and every other child in the street collected candy flying from the floats. I grimaced, but the Sons of the Confederate Veterans had as much of a right to participate in Prattville’s Fourth of July parade as I had to watch it.  “Kids, let’s sit this next one out,” I said.

“Huh?” They didn’t appreciate my intrusion. Or didn’t understand it. They hadn’t come here to celebrate American Independence. They’d come to celebrate Tootsie Rolls, Jolly Ranchers, flying discs, and plastic bead necklaces. They were clustered with an eclectic group, all dedicated to the same pursuit. The family to the left sported their stars and bars proudly. The sandy haired boy to the right had a nondescript shirt. And the African American girl, who had arrived late and been standing behind the adults until Caroline noticed her, wore blue.

“I said sit down a minute,” I murmured.

“Why?” Caroline demanded.

I glanced at the float, a gesture utterly lost on her. “I’ll explain later.”

You don’t “explain later” to her brand of Asperger’s. If you want compliance, you explain now, and you do it concisely. I know this. I can’t accept “latermyself. But I couldn’t condense 150 years into thirty seconds, either. She grasps the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement on an intellectual level, but she’s only recently begun to internalize these things, to understand that racial equality didn’t magically arrive in 1965.

The family on our left had also noticed the truck. “Oh, they sometimes give out flags!” the mother exclaimed.

I leaned in very close, between Caroline and Sam’s heads. “If they are handing out Confederate flags, you may not accept one.”

Now Sam joined his sister. “Why not?”

“Because racism.”

This, at least, they got. They sat at almost exactly the same moment that the African American girl’s grandmother called her back to the sidewalk.

Yes, of course that float was handing out Confederate Flags.  As soon as she realized this, Caroline popped up again. I repressed a groan and facepalm. But before I could snag her shirt and re-seat her, she spun around. “I get it,” she stage whispered. “Racism.”

She’s a visual child. She had to see the flag to know what I was talking about.

Scott and I clued Sam in later. He understands what racism is, so the message may have clicked. But he’s eight. He’s white. It’s very hard to explain the subtleties and historical realities of racial privilege to a kid who still thinks his electronics are entitlements and howls “No fair!” when we take away access to his tablet.

The float passed quickly. The boy on the right and the kids on the left took flags, our children were not offered any, the African American girl returned to the curb, and she, Caroline and Sam rejoined the others.

They all got on with the more important stuff, like candy.  Everybody looked out for everybody else, each trying to make sure the others got plenty as the good stuff came down the line. None of them cared about skin color.

I’d like to say this proves something positive, but that’s so much horseshit.

Because here’s what else I noticed.

Our family arrived early and stayed until the end.  In the whole line of floats, not one group handed out the American Flag. Not one. I’m no over-patriotic trumpeter, but who the fuck thought it was cool for the Sons (Great-grandsons? How many generations are we removed by now?) of Confederate Veterans to hand out the Stars and Bars without ensuring that another association handed around the Stars and Stripes? On the fucking Fourth of July? Maybe I overlooked them. Maybe they were on the opposite side of the street or came through even earlier in the morning, but I sure don’t think so.

For that matter, none of the southern states seceded on America’s Independence Day. Given the parade’s veteran theme, the SCV was probably encouraged to participate, but what the hell place did that flag even have besides on their float? (Where it still offended me.)  We aren’t exactly awash with living Confederate soldiers. Hell, I didn’t see any vets from World War II, and there were only a few from Korea and Vietnam, and that was largely after the parade.  They for some reason were carrying Old Glory.

More than that, while there were a few African-Americans marching with other groups, the majority of the vehicles with African American drivers came last. Very last. Maybe this was an administrative oversight, but it was a big one if so. The event was attended by families of all races. Could not one rational human being have looked at the line-up and jiggled some cars around to make it look less like modern Jim Crow?

No, the kids and their egalitarian sweets don’t signal the ushering in of a new era to me. Maybe they signal hope, but I’m skeptical about even that. How can anyone argue that the Confederate Flag isn’t about prejudice? How can we expect those kids, so colorblind now, to grow up with the sense that they are all equals, when the symbols of national separation trump the symbols of national unity at a Fourth of July parade, and the parade itself is so obviously divided along racial lines?

Removing the Confederate Flags from state buildings is symbolic of a larger need. It doesn’t deconstruct ingrained prejudice and hatred. We’ll never eliminate the whack jobs, the ones who take out personal grudges against the world on innocents. But we can’t sit by and encourage them with silence, either, especially not in the deep South.

Happy Birthday, America. You’ve come a long way, baby. But you’ve still got a tough row to hoe.

Summer School Part 1 of 3

Really 2(Door creaks open. Jessie peers through, enters, and sneezes twice in the accumulated dust. She dries her nose on her sleeve. Finding her jester’s crown atilt on a high backed chair, she strides to it with growing confidence. She seizes the cap and  bangs it on a nearby table, sending up a dust storm and bringing on a hacking fit. When she has recovered, she glares daggers at the table and chair, daring them to provoke another allergic reaction. Still eyeing the furniture warily, she puts on her hat and waits. When nothing happens, she smiles.)

Jessie: Well, hello folks. It’s nice to be back.

(Sits in chair facing audience. Leans one elbow on the table.)

Jessie: Sorry for the absence. Not much has changed in the last couple of months. Sam and Caroline are still doing well, I’m still ambivalent about the south, and Scott is still doing the lion’s share of the work-that-makes-our-house-livable. Caroline and I have been growing out our hair, but I’m ready to cut mine off again. I suppose everything else will come up in the next few weeks, so I’ll skip the rest of the  pleasantries and get straight to business.

You probably know I teach college English online, and I work over the summer. I rarely discuss my job, even obliquely. But I’ve been harboring a bit of teacherly grouchiness here lately, and I’ve decided it’s time to unveil my latest creation. I’ve developed a text language I only wish I could use when grading. Some essays do receive comments like “this is not a verb”, “cite your sources”, and “vague and garbled”. But I don’t reply in acronymic abbreviations, because I’m not a snarky prof. To emphasize that point, let me say clearly that my remarks here don’t apply to all, or even most, of my students. But, sometimes, late at night, when I’m running low on personal fuel, I find myself rolling my eyes at the screen and muttering. (I can only assume my students periodically respond in kind.) So, without further ado, I give you part one to The Jesterqueen’s Guide to Grading .


The background picture above is the tombstone of  a Civil War soldier in a historic graveyard  in Sharonville, Ohio.


Yes, these are pictures from the exact day we were lost, earlier in the day. You can't see the San Francisco on my jacket. But I still own and use that jacket.

We watched The Princess Bride this morning, Sam and Caroline for the first time. “I’m glad you stuck with us,” I said to Scott.

“I saw it before, in college.”

I knew this. I also knew he hadn’t been too keen. But he had clearly enjoyed it with the family. As he and Sam fixed the lintel that Sam broke apurpose two years ago and has accidentally snapped in two other places since, I said, “it doesn’t count until you’re with your true love.”

“That’s way too sappy.”

I kissed him anyway.

If you know any of our history, it’s this part: I didn’t think this kind of love was real until I fell for Scott within moments of meeting him. Tomorrow marks fifteen years, one month, and one day since our first date.

I’m a mess right now .This movie has always been a favorite of mine. I’ve wanted to share it with the kids for ages. I expected to giggle at Buttercup’s hyperbolic helpless-princess-ness. I expected to chant “Humperdink, Humperdink, Humperdink,” with Miracle Max.  I expected to feel Inigo’s passion and Westly and Buttercup’s joy.

I didn’t expect my heart to swell until I was weeping like a grandmother at a wedding. I didn’t expect that the sight of my husband and son’s heads bent over a thin piece of wood, piecing it back together puzzle-like would evoke such painful joy. I didn’t expect, this many years later, to be as sure as I was the first day.

I never knew True Love was real or that it came with capital letters until I met Scott. I never knew there was something more than lust at first sight, that you could fall in love with a laugh before you’d learned a name, that the serenity of standing in a ten minute embrace that never even reached a kiss could lead to a lifetime of passion.

True Love is messy. Our marriage’s sinews haven’t grown like magic. We’ve worked on them, sewn them together, weaved them around each other and the kids. Raising children on the spectrum, high functioning though they may be, is not a little like plowing through the Fire Swamp. I don’t know how many times Humperdink has found us at the other side of that forest in the form of outsiders who didn’t understand one or the other of us, or all four of us together. I don’t know how many last minute rescues we’ve had to pull off with no plans and few resources.

But these are the things that have made our bond real.

This is the storybook, the thing that drives the poets, the emotion that cannot be believed, only lived.

And every day of it is a miracle. Every goddamned day.

I love you, honey.


Compassion is not Self Righteousness

Really one
Back before Christmas, a friend’s younger daughter had an emotional breakdown, and it was late January before her mental health could be called anything like stable. She’s eleven, and, like Caroline, is fighting hormones. But in addition to enduring that pre-pubescent nightmare- hell, this kid has been through some major life upheavals lately. It’s not hard to see why she’s been struggling.

But she’s not the only one. As soon as the daughter’s needs became impossible to keep wholly private, her mother, my friend, was the target of a hundred thousand attacks. I’m not talking about abstract ‘mom wars’ snipes here. Her friends (or ostensible friends), buried her in unjustified judgment and blasted her with blame.

Fuck blame. This isn’t anybody’s fault.

When a kid’s mental health is on the line, it’s too easy to seek answers by crushing the parents under a microscope. My friend, fairly recently single, is getting hit by unfair accusations from all sides. She shouldn’t have a job. She shouldn’t go to school. She shouldn’t have gotten a divorce or, having done that, found a boyfriend (never mind that her kids think the world of the man). In other words, if only she had been there for her daughter, the child would not need any outside help.


She has been there. And all of us need outside help at some point in our lives. She’s been reaching out in every way she can, up to and including moving to a new city to get all her kids (because she has four) the hell out of a horrible school system. She is enduring the same havoc they are while helping them manage some tough emotions.

She doesn’t need self righteous jerks telling her how to live. She needs support.

When a kid has issues, any issues, the parents are first ones cut down. The most common attitude is something along the lines of, “If you tried harder, your kid wouldn’t …” fill in the blank with anything you like, but the sentence really ends “be abnormal”. As if “normal” was a real thing. Scott and I face some of it, but we’ve been lucky enough to build a community of families in similar situations, and we’re able to shield each other and the kids.

My friend is out there doing the shielding all alone. A mom trying to maintain a delicate balance, she’s being forced to justify the very things she does to make her life better. Let me spell it out. Her job puts food on the table. Her education creates the possibility for a better job. The divorce is nobody’s fucking business but her own. And her boyfriend enhances her mental health, which helps her be a better mom. Hell, she didn’t introduce the guy to her kids as a boyfriend until they’d been a couple for some time. (Also, and just to reiterate, the kids adore him.) This daughter is reacting to a combination of changes in her body and environment, to a feeling out being out of control.

Who fucking wouldn’t?

The moral of the story?

Don’t be an asshole.

If you know a parent whose child has serious issues, be they physical, emotional, developmental, communicational, or behavioral, stop yourself before you place blame. You’re on the outside, and there is always a factor you don’t know or haven’t considered. Throw lifelines, not stones. Believe me, you’ll need those connections yourself someday, and the people you buoy up now will reach back later in ways you never anticipated.

My friend posted this on her Facebook wall with a picture of her sleeping son, and it conveys my message precisely.

My friend posted this on her Facebook wall with a picture of her sleeping son, and it conveys my message precisely.


*I’m linking this post to the 1,000 Voices Speak for Compassion project. If you want to participate, the link is live through Noonish (in the U.S.) on 2/21/15.

Me and Laura Ingalls

I’d have made a shitty pioneer.

The GDF MachineOur dishwasher stopped draining last Tuesday, because fuck you. Scott and I are in budgeting season, when everything is a tip-toe balance to make the rest of the year run smoothly. “We can fix this,” I said.

Scott was not so optimistic. “Well, let’s try.”
We checked the filters, the obvious culprits, and got hopeful when we removed a trapped popsicle wrapper. (Don’t ask how it got there.) But no, after I ran the drain cycle, the two inches of chunky food-muck remained. Disgusted, I turned off the power (the appliance has its own switch) and jammed my hand down its works.

I presume my Oby-gyn feels this way at some point during my annual visit, fumbling around in a slimy, invisible cavity hunting for God-only-knows-what. I located more of the popsicle wrapper and about a ton of noodles. I achieved nothing.

“Damn it, the thing’s only clogged!” I didn’t kick it. (But only because I was sitting down.) “You can hear all its happy little motors slurping away. Let’s take the hose apart.”

“I’ll get the shop vac,” Scott suggested.

While removing the standing water significantly reduced the gross-out factor, it did nothing to get us dishes that didn’t reek of swamp. We did take the hose apart, only to discover that we were probably right. Clogged. Water went in the tub, but it never drained out.

“That does it,” I announced. “I’m consulting the internet.”

“Lemon. We didn’t have this problem with the last one.”

No, but it was ancient. Its time was coming. This isn’t two whole years old! “Give me the model number, and I’ll see if there’s anything specific.”

“Ready? It’s G…D…F—”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Geronimo, Delta, Foxtrot.”

“Fucking apt. Not a good sign. Wish me luck.”

The internet said nothing about my GDF machine. Or not it in particular. After viewing the third God-Damned plumber video carefully showing me how to clean the Fucking filters, I was ready to explode. I stopped You-Tubing and started Googling.

“Baking soda and boiling water,” I finally concluded. “It’s what you do for a clogged drain.”

“Says doctor internet.”

“Three sites concur, so it must be true.”

“Three being the magic number and all.”

Still, five rounds of baking-soda-boil, two Harry Potter quips, and multiple shop vac suctions later, the fucker worked.

For two nights.

Thursday, Scott turned it on only to be greeted with a flood. The soap hadn’t even popped yet, but the kitchen floor was instantly coated with a thin layer of slime.

The plumber comes Thursday.

By then, we’ll have been a week washing dishes by hand, which is to say Scott will have been a week washing dishes by hand. I’ll scrub toilets more willingly. Clean kitchenware is Scott’s arena even when all our appliances are fully functional. With one down, I’m content to let the plates back up. I have, however, been caught in guilt induced drying fits.

My ancestors with their tin tubs and scrub boards, their calloused hands gnarly and twisted, may roll over in their graves, but I, may it please the court, shall dine on paper.

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