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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Best Christmas Ever

For the first time in the fifteen years I’ve been with Scott, the Merriman family Christmas went to hell in a handbag. Best. Christmas. Ever. No, wait! Don’t go away.  It was awful for some! But it slowed things down a bit for the rest of us and created some unique opportunities.

Every year is a winter family reunion. We see all of Scott’s sisters, even though they are scattered around the country. (The few years Susan didn’t come, she was living in a boat in the Bahamas. It would be very hard to hold that against her.)

We’ve grown to a crowd of twenty, and we descend upon go to his oldest sister’s house for a gigantically long weekend. Between one dinner with his mom and another (on a different night!) with his dad and stepmom, we have some three to four days of mad tea party carnival. And every year, it’s fucking amazing.

I stand in awe that Holly can host the lot of us, feed the lot of us, house most of us (our family stays in a hotel; her home and my sanity have their limits), make it all fun, and still somehow maintain her position as a vice-president in a company. I’d be locked in an asylum.

Her daughters are old enough to help. And we all try to bring something. But mostly that means Judy brings a bunch of food from six hours away, our family brings cookies from ten hours away, and Scott’s mom brings popular dinner dishes. Susan lives on the west coast. There isn’t much she can drag on an airplane.

This year, though, Holly and family got a highly contagious stomach bug the day before we were all due to arrive. Susan had already gotten in and so wound up as nursemaid. The rest of us avoided them like we were vampires dodging sunshine flavored garlic.

Caroline was crushed. She’s trapped in a world of expectations that reality can’t match this year. Everybody else adapted merrily on the fly. Judy re-routed to Cincinnati, and we planned two days of slapdash holiday.

Scott’s dad and stepmom live in an apartment, and we would never, if not for necessity, have tried to crowd four kids, one of them Sam, into that small space. But we did it this year. And we enjoyed them more than we dreamed possible.

Poor Holly had tons of food that went to waste because we couldn’t come. The day after we got together with Scott’s dad, the rest of us ate what Judy and Scott’s mom had prepared and exchanged gifts under his mom’s tree. The four youngest cousins (that term being relative, as Judy’s youngest is fourteen and our oldest is eleven) got to enjoy each other in a way they never have. And the adults. We sat still and talked. I could walk away and breathe (i.e., hide with a video game for ten minutes) without guilt.

Tons of other shit went wrong. We forgot half our gifts in Montgomery. Caroline spent several weepy hours proclaiming she had two holes in her heart where Holly’s daughters belong. Sam was … well, himself. And we had so much fun.

Next year, we’ll be back to the usual rumpus, and it will be better than ever for our having missed it this one time. It felt good to take a season off and move more slowly. It felt good to enjoy the family we had and teach Scott’s mom how to Skype with the ones we didn’t. It felt good for once to temporarily shrink the tribe.

The ones who don’t say “Trick or Treat”

2014-10-31 17.51.55Halloween is my favorite time of the year. When else can we go door to door, jeer at and veritably threaten the people who answer the summons, and still be met with candy? Candy! Oh the season of candy. It brings me such joy. This is my Christmas and Thanksgiving. Imagine if I wandered up to a stranger’s house in July, rang the bell and shouted, “TRICK OR TREAT!”Odds on, they’d call the cops.

2014-10-31 17.53.31But there are those who knock on the stoop year round, most particularly salespeople and religious proselytizers. I don’t have sympathy for the sellers of goods I don’t want. They’re lucky if I pretend not to be home while shouting at the dog to prove I am. If we must interact, I snarl at them whether they have invaded the privacy of my home or the privacy of my phone.

But the promulgators of God? To them, I’m nice.

If you know me, you’d expect the opposite. My grandfather once asked, “Are you agnostic or antagonistic?”


But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses or members of the Church of Latter Day Saints come to my door, I open it with a smile.


Two reasons.

The first is simple. Viewed up close, both groups suffer from stereotyping, most keenly the unreasonable assumption that the only thing they ever want to discuss is God and that they will only befriend those who share their beliefs. Horseshit.  I have friends who belong to both churches. I went to a Latter Day Saints Halloween party this week, and nobody said “God,” “Jesus,”  “Joseph Smith,” or “Why in the hell is your son dressed as Wonder Woman?”. Please believe me. There are a couple of Bible Baptists back home (one of whom conducted my sister’s burial service) who spend far more time trying to convert people than anybody I know who might have traveled house to house with a tract. (And Sam’s Halloween costume has gotten praise from all political and religious corners, for the record).

Besides, Jehovah’s Witnesses contributed hugely to the freedom of religion in the United States.  If not for the bravery of the Gobitis and Barnette children in the 1940’s, I might have to stand for mandatory pledge salutes today.  To them, saluting a flag was a form of idolatry. Because they endured outrageous hazing for refusing to do it, the Supreme Court was forced to reverse itself and permit people to sit the spiel out.

That has saved me a lot of hassle in my life. To me, the words “under God” violate the separation of church and state entirely. (In case you’ve been living under a rock or reside in Canada, where this shit is irrelevant, “Under God” was added to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Thank you, Senator Joseph McCarthy and fanatics everywhere.)

The second reason is less concrete. I am kind to the people who come around my neighborhood to say “God’s a Treat” (or something equally cheesy) because I understand that call to proselytize. It’s not a religious compulsion for me, but I exercise it regularly. The ultimate joy for a fiction writer is to draw readers so far into an imaginary world that they want it to be real. I won’t say “believe”, because I’m as agnostic about the “suspension of disbelief” theory as I am about anything. But if I can completely absorb a reader in that way, I’ve accomplished something. I’m not really so different from the ladies and gentlemen handing out copies of The Watchtower.

When they traipse up, I don’t talk long. I don’t want to chat about God, I’m not up for a conversion experience today, and I’m not going to put any missionary in the position of defending the indefensible. (I’m referring to homophobia. Even if I could be persuaded on religious grounds, I wouldn’t join any group that forbade homosexual behavior. For one thing, not all adherents of the faith support that doctrine. For another, I get all high and mighty myself with a gigantic “who the fuck do you think you are?” attitude if I have to deal with anybody who does support that.)

But I thank them. Even if they come at an inopportune time, forcing me to answer the door with Sam in a headlock while clutching the dog’s collar, I thank them. Because by carrying their words, their worlds, from door to door, they have helped expand the freedom of religion to include my freedom from religion.

I don’t have to agree with them to respect them, and living, as I do, in the deep South, that’s something I appreciate more every day. The Amway guy can Am-scray, but the Witnesses are okay. They are among the few strangers who don’t have to say “Trick or Treat” to get me to answer the doorbell.

The Change


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