Friday, October 26, 2012

Halloween Costumes for the Authorially-Inclined

The veil grows thin between our worlds. A time of soul-chilling horror draws nigh. We can avert our eyes, we can ignore the terror turning our bones into icicles. Yet the reality remains.

I refer, of course, to the agony of Halloween parties.

Okay, maybe the prospects of costumes and crowds and socializing don’t shamble menacingly through your noggin like freshly-animated, flesh-craving cadavers. Nonetheless, for other authors who, like me, have mummified themselves in denial only to find Halloween soirees have snuck up behind them, below I humbly submit a few literature-inspired costume ideas.

1. Your book. Just because it’s Halloween doesn’t mean you have to stop shamelessly promoting yourself! This can be as easy as two pieces of cardstock or cardboard slung over your shoulders like a sandwich board. The front, of course, mirrors one of your books’ covers.
2. A character from one of your novels or novellas. For me, for example, I could don some jeans, a black shirt, some butt-kickin’ black boots, and a suspicious expression. Pull my hair back into a low, no-nonsense ponytail, and voila, I’m Gray from Hunted.
3. Your muse. Now, I can’t pretend to know what yours looks like, but mine tends to come in the form of blond coffee in one hand and a (metaphorical) battle mace in the other. My muse wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a toga and fluffy blonde curls; she tends to bat away my excuses, ply me with caffeinated substances, and frown at me when I divide my attention. Finally, she smiles a lot… with fangs. (Now that I think about it, minus the caffeine part, my muse sounds an awful lot like one of my cats.)
4. Your literary s/hero. J.K. Rowling? Sherman Alexie? Alice Walker? Laura Ingalls Wilder? Mark Twain? The beauty of this costume is that it can be as elaborate or simple as you choose.
5. A stereotype of a brilliant author. What might this look like to you? A pipe-smoking, spectacles-sporting, pen-wielding genius with a distracted look in her or his eye and a pocket full of literary classics? Genius!
6. The reality of a brilliant author. In other words, you when you write. PJs? Check. Hair in curlers or a sloppy ponytail? Check. Mug of tea at hand, keyboard glued (probably not literally) to your fingers, glasses pushed up atop your head? Check, check, and check.

Introverts, procrastinators, and the overworked, we can hide no longer; the holiday parties are jumping out of the shadows at us, yelling “Boo!” Our best weapon is to show up prepared. And to ruthlessly promote our own literary genius. Always that. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Exercising Our SI Muscles

Do you have a vroom-vroom? No?
Guess you're not as cool as sociologists.

The term “sociological imagination” (SI) comes from C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book by the same name. “Sociological imagination” is, essentially, locating personal issues within their social contexts in order to further analyze them. Sociologists frequently reference Mills and the SI, not only because the concept encourages us to engage more critically with our social and cultural worlds but because Mills rode a motorcycle and made nerdy sociologists look slightly cooler.

Sounds fun, right? (The SI, not the motorcycle.) Here’s the snag: We live in the U.S., which is an incredibly individualistic nation. Individual freedoms? Personal determinism? Emphasizing the rights of individuals above those of the masses? Tic, tac, and toe! As a result, we tend to address our social worlds solely in terms of individual rights and choices. If someone is in dire straits, it must be because they screwed up, right? What kind of dismal childhood did they have, anyway? How might we exorcise their personal weaknesses and replace them with the iron rods of self-reliance and -determination? These questions illustrate some of the many reasons why thinking sociologically – in other words, putting people within their cultural and global contexts – remains such a Sisyphean task.

That said, shall we try? Below is a list of sociological questions you might wish to ask yourself every second of every encounter of every day. Ever. Or at least whenever your sociology instructor asks you to think critically.

·         Description: What are some underlying social issues behind this?, How might someone in another place, nation, or historical time discuss or describe this?
·         Historical analysis: How has this social issue manifested before now? How has it been addressed, historically speaking?, What current factors make us discuss in the ways we do now?
·         Geography: What does this say about our community?, Why did this manifest this way?, Does this issue look the same in other regional contexts?, How does this situation reflect national or global events?
·         Culture: What norms does this reflect?, How do media portray this issue, and how does that affect this situation?, How do American rituals and values play into this?, How might others talk about this situation, and what does that say about their political and personal identities?
·         Identities and groups: How might identities (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/abilities, looks, age, religion, immigration status, etc.) play a part in how this developed and appears?, How might this situation change if it occurred to someone who is a member of a different identity set?, How might members of other identities perceive this?, How does this situation affect others based on their identity/group membership?

Let’s do a couple of exercises to limber up our sociological imaginations.

Exercise 1: The Case of Sororal Sorrows

Your sister, who works at Subway for minimum wage, calls you up and asks for a small loan so she can pay her bills. Your first thought goes something like, “Get a better job! I work hard for my money!” Then, the light of sociology gleams down upon you, and you decide to reference your handy-dandy list of sociological questions and ask yourself the following: 1. How might one describe your sister’s job situation?, 2. Who is unemployed and underemployed in the U.S. right now? Why is this?, 3. What does it mean to be impoverished? Who is poor, and why?, 4. How might her identities (gender, race, age, etc.) factor in?

Knowing stats like these is one of the main reasons
sociologists rarely get invited back to parties.
We all know what unemployed is, but what about underemployed? This is when a person works fewer hours and for lower wages than they want. It’s also used to describe those who don’t get paid what they deserve according to their education and experience.[i] In this economy, a huge chunk of people are underemployed[ii]; it’s kind of hard to compete with outsourced labor, so wages remain depressed while cost of living has inched ever-upward.[iii] Didn’t you read in one of your Soc classes that the underemployment rate in 2009 was something like 14% for White folks and around 25% for Latinos and African Americans?[iv] You also heard on the news last night that most of the job growth over the past few years has been in low-wage jobs.[v] Sheesh! Is everyone having a hard time paying their rent?

Okay, so a lot of people, including your sister, are underemployed. Maybe she and others could get some, you know, governmental assistance or something. Although she is technically impoverished (around $11,000 a year or less for a family of one[vi]), she doesn’t have a kid, so she doesn’t qualify for social assistance. Strike one. Maybe she could move back in with your mom? Oh, that’s right – your mother is (barely) subsisting on social security right now. Strike two. Finally, you remember something you heard your brilliant sociology instructor say about women experiencing higher rates of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S.[vii] And besides, don’t women get paid something like 77 cents on every male dollar?[viii] Strike three, sister.

So, perhaps your sister isn’t just a drain on society and your patience. Maybe she’s a symptom of several larger issues. Given our economy and your sister’s sex, it’s no wonder she’s one of millions of Americans experiencing economic hardships.

In the end, you can’t lend her the money, anyway, because you’re broke, too, but at least you can commiserate with, rather than lecture, her.

Exercise 2: Attack on Our Wallets by the Killer Fat People!

Ugh! Fat people are driving up our healthcare costs! Don’t you have enough financial woes to deal with, what with the prices of gas and your newfound awareness of the stagnation of wages over the past few decades? Annoyed at the effects their portliness have on your wallet, you glare at random fat people on your way to work.

Then inspiration strikes. Why not ask some of those fun sociology questions and get to the bottom of this social issue? 1. How do we define “fat” in the U.S., and what does this say about us?, 2. How long has fatness been considered a social problem?, 3. Heck, is it even true that fatness drives up healthcare costs?, 4. Culturally speaking, how do we talk about fatness?, and 5. Who in the U.S. is fat?

You journey to the Internet like any good sociologist and immediately research how we define “fat.” What is this “Body Mass Index (BMI)” thingy[ix], and how accurate can it be when it defines everyone from Mo’Nique to Arnold Schwarzenegger as “obese”?[x] Fatness hasn’t always been considered a social problem, your research tells you; our cultural obsession with it seems to have blossomed in the 20th century as Westerners moved from defining fatness as a biological (hormonal, genetic) to a psychological (fat as “protection,” mommy issues) “problem.”[xi] Whoa! Your research reveals the “fat people = higher healthcare costs” equation is simplistic at best and a myth at worst.[xii],[xiii]

If we were really concerned about healthcare, you muse during a brief break, wouldn’t we be equally furious at people who don’t handle stress well (heart problems, anyone?), who don’t use sunscreen (hello, cancer!), and who don’t put those anti-slip seashell foot-gripper thingies in their showers (cracked skull, here we come!)? After all, no one has started a “War on Shower Slipping.”

The more you research, the more you start thinking the whole fat issue has recently become a moral panic, turning normally-rational human beings into frothing lunatics who seem willing to blame fat people for everything from global warming[xiv] to higher airplane fares.[xv] Why the passion over a different body type? Why do large numbers of Americans say they would rather walk away from their marriage or become an alcoholic than be fat?[xvi] Why the constant cultural devaluation of anything to do with fatness? You discover more people of color[xvii] and working class folks[xviii] are fat. Might these facts have something to do with how we discuss fatness, or does this moral panic stem from more technological and economic factors?

Your brain is about to explode from all the questions and all the dark corners you could investigate with the flashlight of critical social research; however, you’re tired and decide to continue your research tomorrow. On your way to school the next day, you smile brightly at fat people, sorry you ever believed the silly cultural hype about them draining our system. Luckily for you, they smile back.

Notice how the application of the sociological imagination brought you and your sister closer and turned your fat-aimed frown upside down? Embrace how much better you feel now that you’re contextualizing every personal issue and questioning, well, everything. It’s kind of freeing, don’t you think, to escape the pressure of weighing individuals’ “good” and “bad” choices in favor of regarding them as colors and lines within much larger, cultural and historical murals. Heck, if nothing else, applying the sociological imagination will make you feel a little nicer.

Plus, and let’s be honest – the SI brings us all this much closer to motorcycle-riding, sunglass-wearing coolness.


[i] The Free Dictionary. “Underemployed.” Retrieved October 20, 2012 (

[ii] Marlar, J. 2012. “U.S. Unadjusted Unemployment Rate at 7.9% in September.” Gallup Economy. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (

[iii] Mishel, L. and H. Shierholz. 2011. “The Sad but True Story of Wages in America.” Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[iv] Edwards, K.A. 2009. “Minorities, Less Educated Workers See Staggering Rates of Underemployment.” Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[v] Data brief. 2012. “The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality.” National Employment Law Project. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[vi] HHS. 2012. “2012 HHS Poverty Guidelines.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[vii] APA. 2012. “Psychological Effects of Unemployment and Underemployment.” American Psychological Association. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[viii] Macionis, J. 2012. Social Problems, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
[ix] CDC. 2011. “About BMI for Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 20, 2012 (
[x] Campos, Paul. 2005. The Diet Myth. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.
[xi] Schwartz, H. 1986. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat. New York, NY: The Free Press.
[xii] Durazo-Arvizu, R., D.L. McGee, R.S. Cooper, Y. Liao, and A. Luke. 1998. “Mortality and Optimal Body Mass Index in a Sample of the US population.” American Journal of Epidemiology 147:739-749.
[xiii] Flegal, K.M., B.I. Graubard, D.F. Williamson, and M.H. Gail. 2005. “Excess Deaths Associated with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 293(15):1861-7.
[xiv] Hill, C. 2009. Scientists: “Fat People Make Global Warming a Lot Worse.” New York Daily News. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (
[xv] DiCarlos, L. 2002. “Why Airlines Can’t Cut the Fat.” Forbes. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (
[xvi] Schwartz, M. 2006. “Some People Would Give Life or Limb Not to be Fat.” Yale News. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (
[xviii] FRAC. 2010. “Relationship between Poverty and Overweight and Obesity.” Food Research and Action Center. Retrieved October 21, 2012 (

Friday, October 12, 2012

An Open Message to the Bullies

The fatosphere lit up like a dynamite-encrusted birthday cake last week when a CBS anchor, Jennifer Livingston, addressed on air a man who wrote her a letter chastising her for setting a bad example for viewers. Her transgression? Being too fat. Her on-air response was intimate, eloquent, and powerful. She spoke of the pain his message had caused her and urged other victims of bullying to honor their own strength and worth.

Shortly thereafter, Ragen Chastain, of Dances with Fat acclaim, started the Better than the Bullies Campaign, which includes videos and letters from victims of weight bullying to their victimizers. As she writes on the site, “We are standing up, we are fighting back, we are better than the bullies.

Like most fat kids, I was bullied during my school years. Because I support Ragen, because this is National Anti-Bullying Month, and because I kinda like me and feel somewhat eager to share the good feelings, I made my own video. My eternal thanks to Kris Owen, artist and future-PR-Guru, who slapped the video together; truth told, I just sat there and held up cards while she did all the work.

And by the way, I don’t want to imply I think bullying is confined to childhood; heck, I believe it just becomes more nuanced as we age. Nonetheless, and while others and I face subtler forms of –isms every day, middle and high school were some of the most painful years for me. Below is my message to my own bullies and, I hope, anyone who has ever abused another.  

I hope this inspires you.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Expanding Our Verbal Repertoire

I love words the way painters must adore colors and musicians cherish music notes. I honor the way they look, the dots and lines and whorls. I’m grateful for their heroic, and doomed, attempts to make concrete what is ultimately abstract and immeasurable. Their lonely collections of letters, of solidified ambiguity, of contentiousness between aural and visual, of confined epistemologies and solidified prejudices: I heart them all.

If you, like me, think of each word as a weapon in your arsenal, as a different color in your painter’s palette, then you’ll appreciate what I’ve decided to do for myself. Below is a list of words I’ve encountered from time to time and yet never manage to staple to my long-term memory. Heck, maybe the public acknowledgement of my poor verbal retention will help shame me into memorizing these elusive little buggers. Fingers crossed.

I grabbed these definitions from (unmarked) and Merriam Webster online (marked with an asterisk).

Assiduous: marked by careful unremitting attention or persistent application*
Only through a campaign of assiduous inquiries, chats, and gifts did Elle’s partner eventually win her over.

Concupiscent: lustful or sensual
Elle’s concupiscent relationship with hair, particularly of the curly and brown varieties, remained a secret no longer.

Desultory: 1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: 
2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random
Until this very moment, Elle had no idea that her haphazard approach to blogging could be characterized as “desultory.”

Erstwhile: former
Hufflepuff, Elle’s erstwhile furchild, lives his own little happily-ever-after in Southern California.

Fulsome: offensive to good taste, especially as being excessive; overdone or gross
Really, don’t you find Elle’s obsession with Hello Kitty a little, well, fulsome? I mean, the woman has a Hello Kitty nose stud, for god’s sake!

Meretricious: alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions; tawdry
Of course, Elle’s also a little meretricious in her v-necked Hello Kitty t-shirt, amiright?

Munificent: extremely liberal in giving; very generous
People everywhere agreed Elle’s latest post reflected her magnificently munificent nature.

Perspicacious: having keen mental perception and understanding; discerning
“You’re quite the perspicacious student,” Elle gushed.

Perspicuous: clearly expressed or presented; lucid
“Oh, Dr. Hill, that’s only because your sociology lectures are so perspicuous!” exclaimed the starry-eyed student.

The refulgent eye of Elle is upon you
Refulgent: shining brightly; radiant; gleaming
Elle’s refulgent eyes glared back at the computer screen.

Verisimilitude: the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability
Elle sincerely hoped none of her readers would research the verisimilitude of her use of L.A. geography in her various novels.

Have a refulgent day, my perspicacious three readers.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Trapped in Internet Addiction?, or, My New IUD

Hi, my name is Elle, and I have Internet Use Disorder (IUD). I didn't know I suffered this affliction till today, and, well, to be honest, I’m not sure I “suffer,” per se. I stumbled across this article, ironically published online, which discusses IUD (tell me I’m not the only one who finds the acronym a little—disconcerting), a new disorder freshly added to the forthcoming DSM-V. According to the article, you know you’re an IUDer when you identify with a bunch of the following behaviors: a preoccupation with the Internet; withdrawal when not in contact with your beloved Internet; spending huge amounts of time, often at the expense of other activities, online; and using the Internet to “replace” human interaction.

Yes, yes, and yes. Okay, granted, I’m not superglued to my computer screen 24/7. I read a lot, thanks mostly to my beloved Kindle, a brilliant, candy-like machine that allows me to browse Amazon and buy books with the press of my finger against the screen. Just one little touch against its cool, smooth surface, and those words are mine, all MINE!

Ah, sheesh--I probably have Kindle Use Disorder, too.

Before checking myself into Betty Ford, perhaps I owe myself a slightly closer look into my own Internet habits as well as the cultural construction of addictions. First of all, I, like you (most likely), live in the year 2012, smack dab in the middle of the Information Age. The process whereby I gain instant access to information, from international news to the breakfast habits of my Wisconsinite friend, Eileen, is so much a part of the fabric of my life as to be completely invisible. The rhythms of my life pulse and pound around the structures of my online world. Here’s how the Internet is integral to just about every aspect of my existence.
  •            Career: I teach five classes per semester, one of them entirely online and the other four partially. I publish my poetry and novels in both hard and electronic versions. Essentially, I trade in information, so accessing it in its many forms is pretty essential for earning that handy little paycheck thingy; as a result, I quite literally research several hours a day.
  •          Activism and politics: I live in South Dakota. ‘Nuff said. Okay, seriously, I love my job here, but dayum, it’s difficult to maintain my presence as a fat, feminist, and queer rights activist in a super conservative state that boasts around 800K people. Total. Without accessing my progressive groups and friends online, you would find me pretty constantly rocking in a corner, sucking my thumb while pawing through Bitch Magazine.
  •          Interpersonal relationships: For now, at least, my significant other lives in Florida. The one down south. In the little land finger. Like, not in South Dakota at all. We chat via Skype every single day, sometimes for as long as ten hours. Often we sit in total silence, me sweating heroically over a PowerPoint slideshow, my partner doing superhot, geeky things with computers and dropping seductive words like “Boolean.” Hormones aside, I also use Skype to chat with other friends and social media to keep tabs on their dietary habits, relationship changes, and, most importantly, latest cute doggy photos.
  •          Personality: I’m an introvert, one who hates the phone (No, you’re not the exception.). Give me a choice between an intimate get-together and a couple of hours browsing Facebook, and I’ll palm a mouse every time. And, you know, how amazing is it that we've progressed to a point where people like me can still keep in touch without stumbling through meaningless and awkward social rituals? I remember when the Internet got big, right around age 20 for me. I was ecstatic. Finally, Elle, known as a nerdy writer and performer but never a social butterfly, could be COOL! Right away, I knew the Internet and I were destined to be BFFs.

Am I often online for 12 hours per day? You betcha. Do I need an intervention? Only if it involves lattes, doughnuts, and lots of free e-books. Truth is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the Internet as a tool to access one’s vocational, avocational, and social needs and pursuits. Granted, if someone holes up inside her home, petting her computer and calling it her “Precious” while eating endless green beans straight from the can and transforming her computer chair to a portable commode, she just might require some psychological assistance; however, I somehow doubt the Internet had much to do with any of that. That would be like someone calling his agoraphobia “Outdoor Use Disorder,” transferring the attention to the outdoors rather than his avoidance of it.

Characterizing extended Internet use sounds to me like the discomfort older generations have with the emergence of new media and its worrisome, potentially-corruptive influence. When the novel first arrived in the U.S. in the 18th century, many of the older generation sniffed at its sensationalism and predicted it would corrupt the morals and honor of its readers (mostly women) (Biagi’s Media Impact, 2013). No matter the century, there always seems to exist a divide between generations and media usage. Still unsure? Ask a 50-year-old person what they think of texting during dinner, and then ask a 20-year-old. What’s rude to one generation is normal to the next.

Seriously, I get it: IUD is about excess. Elle is okay because she uses the Internet productively and hasn’t yet descended into a Morlock-like state of social isolation, right? Yet, I don’t hear anything about Magazine or Ping-Pong Use Disorder. I would argue the pathologizing of Internet usage stems largely from our terror of new media, our discomfort with new patterns of communication and learning, and our American love affair with pathologizing. Our over-psychologized culture revels in squishing people into little boxes, trimming their sticky-outie bits in order to achieve an ever-better fit. That, combined with our fear and distrust of new ways of interacting with ourselves, our peers, and our world, creates a pretty fabulous recipe for vilifying extended Internet use.  

Truth told, I’m a little suspicious of the concept of addiction, which I would argue IUD espouses. Sure, lives have been ruined and people hurt as a result of substance abuse, but the idea of being addicted to stuff, from food to drama, has exploded in popular culture, so much so that any concentration in an area of one’s life becomes suspect. Addiction is, quite simply, a social construct.

But maybe I’m just wallowing in denial. Perhaps I’m hypnotized by the blinding, artificial light of the computer screen; deafened by the blare of my Pandora songs; and bolstered by the codependent Tweets of my friends and family. Regardless, if a disorder occurs because a person becomes hampered or unhappy with their current state, count me out. I’m pretty happy tethering myself to the Internet for several hours every day. A whole cyberworld awaits my exploration.