Sunday, November 20, 2016

Elle's Proposed Book Rating System

In spite of my rather severe case of nerdiness, I have neither read nor watched Game of Thrones. Shocking, right? I refuse to do so because, before I could embark on the series, several friends told me beloved characters die in droves. Die. In. Droves.

Nope. Nopity nope nopers.

I refuse to consume media in which main characters die. I hate stories that don’t have some
One or two of these? Required for the genre.
All of them? Sloppy writing.
kind of happily-ever-after. I eschew media that allow any kind of harm to befall an animal. I also try to avoid any media, from movies to music to novels, that include any of my deal breakers: rape, harming an animal, rampant and unchallenged -isms, and really, really bad writing.

On the topics of books, you wouldn’t think it’d be difficult to find some that don’t kill main characters or end poorly, that don’t include graphic or gratuitous rape scenes and animal abuse, and that aren’t horribly racist or sexist. You’d think.

Let me give you a brief example. I just stopped reading book three of a long, enormously well-reviewed, and smartly written series. Sure, the series was relentlessly androcentric, and yes, while many women were kick-ass, their power lay carefully couched in reassuring, nonthreatening, sexualized terms. Still, I persevered. Because good writing. But at the end of the third book, when the main character offered up a goddess for a lifetime of brutal rape by ice giants in order to secure his victory, I’d decidedly had enough. 

But fear not, my friends, for I have a potential solution. I have decided we need some kind of rating system for novels. Nothing quite as simple as the G, PG, R cinematic system. I want to have a more detailed system that provides information on what I imagine are common deal breakers. Some of my rating suggestions are below.

Okay, obviously many of these are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m quite serious about some. Am I missing anything, folks? Well, I mean, of course I am. But what would you like to see as a warning or incentive on the cover of a book?

You know, this system would greatly benefit my pocketbook, since I wouldn’t bother buying some of the books, and would likewise help me preserve my precious spare time for books that don’t enrage and disgust me halfway through. All we need to do is, you know, get everyone else on board and institute it. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Making Peace with Our Bodies

I am an officer in my local National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter. We just pulled off a Love Your Body Celebration, which went swimmingly. Heck, I even vended my literary wares, since representing body diversity in my novels is so important to me.  

But anyway, I had the privilege of starting off the festivities and wanted to share my speech with my faithful readers. May you also find peace and comfort in your body.

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to our first annual Love Your Body Celebration. We’re here to honor, recognize, and celebrate bodies of all ages, races, sizes, sexualities, genders, abilities, religions, and so on. All bodies are good bodies.
I wanted to address the idea inherent in the name: Love Your Body. That’s not something that’s easy to do, particularly if you live in a body that we devalue and marginalize in our culture. Sometimes it’s difficult to like your body, let alone love it. I hope today offers all of us an opportunity to learn more about and perhaps make some space to recognize and appreciate, if not always love, our bodies. Our relationships with our bodies, especially when they’re unappreciated or subject to everyone else’s scrutiny, can be complex. Sometimes one of the most radical things we can do is simply to make peace with them. Maybe you’ll love your body; maybe you’ll just stop comparing it to unrealistic media ideals. But one step at a time, we can learn to reclaim the right to define, appreciate, and live our bodies.
We have an amazing array of speakers today that stretch throughout the day. I hope you’ll listen to all their stories and, if you’re inspired, share your own. And please feel free to visit our vendors or color a body-positive picture.
Most of all, thank you for being here and for joining is in this endeavor to make peace with our bodies. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Body Love Word Blank

I made this for the South Dakota National Organization for Women's Love Your Body Day Celebration. Enjoy, all!

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Emotional Toil and Toll of Office Work

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”

I taped up the following quote up near my desk where I worked as a secretary. For the last five years, I had worked for the organization for two whole dollars above minimum wage and some pretty rocking benefits – at least in theory. (It’s worth noting that although friends coveted my benefits package, my meager paycheck couldn’t stretch to cover insurance deductibles, so I never visited the doctor or dentist, even when asthma had me gasping for air and a cavity slowly morphed into a dead root.)

In addition to my bureaucracy quote, I also decorated my office with various feminist paraphernalia, including goddess statues and quotes about women’s worth. A coworker even crafted a very official-looking sign for the door that read “Goddess Elle.”

In my workplace, I perched on the bottom rung of a very steep ladder. My first five years, I had slogged through payroll-related tasks and knew I made literally less than everyone else. (As any feminist theorist would predict, two White guys occupied our two highest paid positions.) My official job titles morphed from “Records Clerk” to “Office Specialist,” but I called myself a secretary; I answered phones, faxed, maintained correspondences, suffered through A/R and some A/P, and I did it all while smiling and laughing with my coworkers, all of whom made substantially more money than me.

I performed rote administrative tasks that rarely strained my brain; my primary reason for existing in that setting involved lavishing cheerfulness and subservience on the public. As do all secretaries, I sold my emotional labor, meaning the biggest part of my job involved pretending to be happy, assuming responsibility for the general cheer of our workplace, and providing an emotional buffer between my coworkers and the public (Hoschchild, 2012 [1983]). I made everyone happy as diligently and reliably as I made coffee every morning. The price of emotional labor, as Hochschild notes, is quite high. Selling my feelings required me to either perform inauthentically or to convince myself I genuinely cared about the people I assisted -- not an easy task. When people treated me rudely or curtly or as just another piece of office furniture, my chest burned, but I unfailingly smiled and wished them a pleasant day. Even my phone voice radiated cheer, as several people mentioned when I chirped my canned greeting into the dreaded mouthpiece.

Later, if I had time between my eight-hour shift at work and my night classes or my second job, I inevitably scrambled home and slumped on my couch for an hour, staring at the ceiling, trying to find myself again. I ached with tiredness for the seven years I worked as a secretary, not only because I worked two jobs and went to school full-time but also, as I would discover later in life, interpersonal interactions drain this introvert very quickly.

I obsessively decorated my office. Of course I did. I was a straight A college student getting her Social Sciences degree, a secretary for forty hours per week, a feminist opinion columnist for a local newspaper, and an activist during my spare time. Occupying the bottom of a workplace hierarchy humiliated me, and stapling a constant, beatific, subservient smile to my face sometimes stung. According to Goffman’s role theory, I engaged in role distancing, meaning while performing my role as secretary, I placed distance between my audience and me by also having visual symbols of my other identities: scholar and activist (Cohen, 2004). I may be a lowly secretary, my many quotes and feminist baubles reminded folks, but I am also a brilliant social scientist and social justice warrior. Role distancing helped me maintain a positive sense of self in what was otherwise a demeaning social position.

Of course, Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality says we are nothing if not multiple “roles” (she would say identities, of course) that coexist and influence one another (1989). I was not just a secretary but also a feminist, a woman, a student, a fat person, and so on. Most of these coexisted beautifully, if not necessarily harmoniously, in a statue of a fat goddess I kept on my desk at work in an attempt to ease some of the humiliation I felt as a devalued worker in a job with low pay and almost no, as Weber would call it, occupational prestige (Gilbert, 2014).

Another example of role distancing? Me saying very often to my family members, “Being a secretary reminds me every day why feminism and a higher degree are absolutely necessary.”

Note: This is my response to a course project in my Social Stratification class in which I asked students to relate various theories to their occupational experience. 


Cohen, R. 2004. Role Distance: On Stage and On the Merry-Go-Round. Journal of Dramatic Theory and     
     Criticism: Fall. Found at

Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of 
     Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. In the University of Chicago Legal 
     Forum: 139–67.

Gilbert, D. 2014. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 9th ed. Sage Publishing.

Hochschild, A. 2012. [1983] The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Beyond Ebony and Ivory

“Ebony, ivory living in perfect harmony.”

I just finished a compelling paranormal romance by a Black American author in which she described a character as having skin so dark it seemed blue-black. Not long ago, a book I read by a White American* author described a character’s skin as so light, it almost appeared translucent.

In spite of what popular songs, literary imagery, and even our language itself tells us, skin colors don’t come in black and white. Ebony and ivory language aside, we are all shades of brown. Some, like me, have very light brown skin; I like to think of myself as a fetching shade of beige. Some, like the woman pictured to the right, have very dark brown skin; rather than “black,” we might think of her skin color as mahogany or seal.

Often in my classes, I flatten myself against the whiteboard in the front of the class and ask students if I’ve suddenly become invisible to them. Spoiler alert: I haven’t. The fact is, even pale, Western European-derived me isn’t really “white.”

Race isn’t a real thing. There’s no basis in biology to distinguish this ridiculous, false construction. This doesn’t mean, of course, race doesn’t matter. In spite of being, you know, totally fake and stuff, our socially constructed racial categories contribute to everything from amount of wealth families have to where they live to how much education they get to national incarceration and poverty rates. But. Race. Isn’t. Real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who thinks we can wish away racism by simply acknowledging race as a lie and then sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la.” Racism is deeply implicated in all our systems and institutions, from our construction of laws to the very language we use.

Speaking of language, why do we pretend skin tones come in opposite colors? It’s beyond my scope here to provide a historical analysis of why binary terms have been applied to varying shades of brown. Suffice to say it isn’t an accident that we associate whiteness with positivity, safety, and purity and blackness with darkness, dirtiness, and evil.

But why do we authors feed into the myth that skin tones actually come in milk white and midnight black? Habit, I guess, and the authorial urge to make scenes pop with dramatic visual imagery; it’s more dazzling to refer to skin as “powder white” or “obsidian” than “sand” and “hickory.”

She raised her head and stared into Marcus’ bright blue eyes. She’d never seen so many pairs of light eyes [before]; maybe Barstow had a preponderance of skin and eyes tones toward the darker end of the brown spectrum. Her own eyes, she knew from staring into the mirror every morning for the past twenty years, gleamed a dull medium brown, too light for chocolate and too dark for amber (The Tithe). 

In The Tithe, a novel about a postracial utopian/dystopian society, my characters reflect on skin color only as a matter of description. I’m not saying I do race right in my books, but it is important to me to try not to reinforce existing racial misperceptions and, therefore, inequalities. This may or may not help dismantle understandings of race and racism, but hey, at least I’m highlighting sameness rather than reinforcing difference. That has to be doing something right, right?

* I use "Black" and "White" not because I want to reinforce these chromatic misrepresentations but because these are actual legal racial categories in the U.S. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Poem: Morning Meeting

If I fits, I sits.
But I don’t fit, and
still I sit,
In the very back,
Capping the row,
An oversized bookend.

One side gasps for air.
The other
knows my colleague.
Our arms, our thighs
Kiss, make love.
Their mouth, their eyes
Frown, promise retribution
In seething blog posts
Or cruel laughter
Over afternoon cocktails.

My doughy bottom
Rolls across hard plastic,
Sighs, drips over sides.
I torque twist, fold:
Inward, always inward,
In posture if not in fact.

My fat, knotted body
An unvoiced apology
For daring to exist.

Thighs that normally
Clap and steam
Loll, cold and dead,
The only tingle
The electric shocks
Of restricted blood.

Tiny, hinging writing surface
Unfurls –
O Modern Technology!
It bounces on my belly,
Slanting our worldview.

I’ll take notes in my lap
If I can just… reach…
I’ll take notes in my head.

What happens when you
Stuff a peck
Of tender/tenderized poet
Into a tiny,
Industrial coffin?
A drippy, gooey mess
That flows
Across and over,
Coating hard plastic
And hands:
Folded, lumpy,
In pain.

Maybe mass-produced,
One size fits all…

beyond the boundaries,
Steampressing the legs
Of a coworker
Whose name I don’t know,
Reshifting the messy
Bits that jiggle and shake,
I am a child again:
A naughty, punished,
Failed fat kid.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Singing the Literary Songs

A week ago, I completed a poetry half-marathon. A full marathon asked poor, abused poets to pen a poem an hour for twenty-four hours. Wimps like me who appreciate a comfy night’s sleep could opt for a half-marathon, which demanded one poem an hour for only twelve hours. So, by the end of my stint, I became the proud mama of twelve poem babies.

Since then, I have become a poetry fiend. I pen quick limericks in elevators, wax poetic in blog posts, jot down freestyle verse during lunch. Heck, during a series of endless meetings last week, I wrote pages of poetry bemoaning the uncomfortable, molded-plastic, stadium seating into which the administrators had shoved us poor instructors.

Here’s a haiku I wrote while shifting every five minutes in order to restore circulation to my legs.

Metal-toothed plastic 
Bites my ample derriere.
Classroom seating sucks.

In addition to actually writing more lately, I’ve also found myself pondering the musicality of poetry and, by extension, prose. How do I know when a line or sentence should end? What blend of long and short sounds feels best? How can words, lines, paragraphs and stanzas shape the structure, use, and rhythm of the message?

I’m sure technical words exist to explain the flow, beat, and meter of poetry and prose. I don’t have a lot of formal training in writing and lack access to that vocabulary. All I can say is that poems and scenes in novels have a tempo to them, and words are the written notes that beat it out. I feel the music of the piece, the longs and the shorts, the tense staccato or the flowing legato. In this way, poems are songs and novels symphonies.

Writing appeals to me because it so deftly straddles lines between structure and rules and sheer, off-the-cuff inspiration and artistry. Many rules exist about, for example, punctuation, capitalization, and object/subject use, but much of the beauty of writing lies in the spaces in between the rules where creativity, rhythm, tactility, and improvisation live.

Many of us who write, I’m sure, also draw, paint, bake, sing, craft, or play a musical instrument. As writers, we are technical geniuses (claim it, baby!), wielding our vocabularies, knowledge of sentence structure, and punctuation savvy. As a mere twelve hours of coffee-slurping and keyboard pounding reminded me, however, we are also magnificent artists that spin, paint, sing, and dance the music and imagery to life within those technical boundaries. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Poem: An Ode to Yellow

You varnish the skies.
Your incandescent arms
Embrace dark rooms,
Make them blush
In the slow burn of
Flickering kisses.

When summer’s green
grows tired and bored,
You crisp along its edges,
Crackling with something like laughter.
You pull the sun into bed at night
And tug it back into the morning sky.

As a child, my younger sister’s hair
Gleamed pale yellow,
A shiny brass coin rubbed matte.
I dressed her in yellow
And called her my daffodil.

Fat bumblebees, weighted by
Beauty and importance,
Bounce through the air.
They wear natural crowns
And make love to
Golden blossoms.

You coat the curves
Of trumpets, trombones,
And sultry saxophones.
They bleat round notes of rapture
And praise.

If you melted
And spread me about,
Smearing me to the edges,
I would flow like butter and
Taste like sunshine.

Poem: Sky Eater: A Haibun

I drank the sky,
opened my mouth
my teeth flashing, cameralike,
in the sun.
I meant to stutter an excuse,
offer an apology,
sing the praises of someone
not me,
but something fuzzy and cool,
like gossamer
or lavender cotton candy,
spun inside.

Well, what was I to do?
Eyes wide and guilty,
I swallowed.

It was delicious,
I don’t mind saying:
Soft and spiky,
bitter and so sweet
my lips puckered
and my tongue perspired.
My empty tummy,
heretofore wrapped
like an undelivered present,
unfurled, stretched,
gurgled a message
to my fretful brain:

I didn’t know what else to do,
so I kept my lips unsealed.
The heavens poured inside,
bulging my cheeks,
kissing my throat,
rounding my belly.
I’m pretty sure
a satellite, thundercloud,
perhaps a star or two
tumbled in.
They tasted hot and bright,
like metal against my teeth.

My face shifted upward,
eyes shining, mouth open
in a hungry song.
Words spun, colliding,
forming sentences and heat.
I’m confident I glowed.

So you see,
the fat orange sun
and its nursemaid clouds
live in me now,
rounding out my body,
filling me with thunder
and starlight.
I tell you only because you wondered
What happened to the sky.

Stars snagged in my teeth,
Clouds distended my belly
As I sipped the sky.

Penning the Poems

What's that clickety-clack sound and the smell of toxic amounts of cinnamon coffee permeating someone's pores? Oh, nothing. Just me doing a poetry half-marathon today from 7 am to 7 pm.

I just finished my fourth poem. And by the way, did you know morning happens before 10 am? No, for real.

I shall post a poem or two throughout the day. So far, my poems, covering topics from childbirth to sexual assault, have been a bit too personal or dark to share with the universe, but I have eight to go, and my next prompt arrives in seventeen short minutes. 

Onward ho, poets and lovers of poetry!