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!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Updating the Masses

The family crest I made for my furkids-
and-fairy-tale-themed wedding.
Faithful readers (which pretty much means my best friend and my ex, but still), I have missed you. Like, a lot. Life has been pretty ridiculous lately, though, what with the wedding thingy, teaching a summer class, and then prepping for the new semester. Also, in the last few months, I, the inveterate hater of travel, have gallivanted to Seattle, L.A., Denver (two or three times), and Fort Collins. And Spearfish, South Dakota, but that doesn’t seem quite as impressive. It does have nice scenery, though.

To keep our relationship fresh and updated and to explain my unseemly absence, here’s what’s happened in my world in the last couple of months:

  1. I DIYed a good chunk of my wedding. I am the invitation-penningest, program-designingest, escort-card-makingest, centerpiece-strategizingest, travel-organizingest, vendor-liaisingest, sign-creatingest, DJ-song-list-compilingest bride evuh!
  2. I added zero words to my stagnating, paranormal romance novel. Zero. Words.
  3. I taught a rousing Social Psychology class. While prepping for, doing, and recovering from my wedding.
  4. I got married and stuff. That was, well, stressful. Beautiful, touching, and expensive. But also enormously stressful. In fact, on the day of my wedding, I had almost zero sleep, forgot to eat, had no time to myself, experienced a bout of low blood sugar before the ceremony, and ended up leaving the reception after 90 minutes to spend the rest of the night getting sick in my hotel room. Ah, memories. In spite of all that, though, I cried throughout my own ceremony and am convinced nothing in the world could be more beautiful and moving. Besides cats, of course.
  5. Some unhappy and yucky stuff happened, but let’s keep that in the rearview mirror.
  6. To distract myself from wedding and class stressors, I probably consumed two dozen novels. If I read one more word about a six-foot shero who weighs 120 pounds or a shero-who-thinks-she’s-so-unattractive-but-who-has-a-passel-of-men-who-want-to-have-monkey-sex-with-her-and/or-immediately-marry-her©, I’m gonna go all wedding night again. And I mean my wedding night, not
    A candid shot my sister took on the
    day of my wedding.
    This pretty much sums it up.
    the traditional, arguably less messy, one.
  7. My lungs were grumpy little traitors, and I suffered through a chest cold that lasted through two weeks and three bottles of cough syrup.
  8. I signed up for a poetry half-marathon, which begins tomorrow. More on that later.
  9. I tried lavender scones and Fruity Pebbles Rice Krispy treats. Oh. Mah. God. 

As you can see, I’ve not neglected you all because I wanted to. Even my novel reading served an essential, sanity-saving function. I’m back now, though, and feel ready to start penning twelve delicious poems.

Oh and btw, I have some sage advice for any engaged folks out there: Elope.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Biopower and Disempowerment

Foucault's biopower is a brilliant dissection of the most insidious kind of power: the kind that we exercise over ourselves in the service of others. We give up control of the right to define or categorize our own bodies and even twist and contort and harm our bodies in order to match some of those one-size-fits-all categories or "normal" and "right." 

I have always been fat. How do I know this? Doctors, for one, told me. According to their BMI charts, I am "morbidly obese." All my life, I've been told I am three steps away from a massive coronary, from hypertension, from being a diabetic. Eeeeeeek! OMG! How am I even still alive?!

And although tons of data exist to contradict the safety and long-term effectiveness of diets, doctors have put me on them since I was seven years old. By the time I gave dieting the middle finger at age 22, I had tried all of them. You know what the effects were? I felt weak. I over-exercised. I fantasized endlessly about diving into lakes of alfredo sauce. I took legally prescribed speed and shook for hours. My body hurt, felt weak. One of my organs started shutting down. All this was overseen by doctors, who approved. Good job, Elle!, they said. Congrats on the weight loss!

The one thing I did well? Submit myself to definitions and practices that I didn't like, that actually hurt, and that focused my entire attention on how I could better deprive myself. I had little energy left to be a good queer activist, a fiery feminist. I was socially and politically docile, hungry and weak, all because my physical and mental energies were focused on arbitrary numbers on a scale. 

The doctors helped, but ultimately, I was the one policing my own body. I kept it tightly bound within social definitions of "beautiful" and "proper" and "feminine." I gave up control of defining and even living my body, so that it was a stranger to me, an unruly monster I fought with. Biopower, baby. 

When I was 21, I started reading medical literature about dieting and realized I'd been duped. I stopped dieting. I recently wrote a journal article about how my current body size lies outside the realm of "normal" and "desirable," and that's a delicious freedom from social constraints. Now that I no longer submit (in this way, at least) to the medical definitions, I feel much more at home with me. 

Note: In order to demonstrate the, you know, power of biopower, I penned the above for my Social Psychology class. Lucky you, I decided to share. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Naming Independence

Happy Independence Day, everyone! For this 24-hour period, may grilled gluttony, safe and legal explosions, and patriotic rhetoric festoon your lives.

I chose to honor Independence Day by writing about women who change their last names after marriage. I mean, obviously. You know: Independence Day, women’s independence, Second Wave feminism, and patrilineality. This 4th of July blog post practically writes itself.

I’ll admit, this topic concerns me a lot lately, since I’m getting married in two short weeks (gulp). Honestly, I have zero desire to change my last name; it’s my remaining connection to my deceased father, it possesses a charming shortness and sweetness, and, you know, keeping it pokes convention right in the eyeball. Win-win-win.

Some cultural pressure exists to change it, however. According to conventional wisdom, women should/do change their last names to create a sense of familial unity and to give any children who come along a single last name. Plus, given pressures from friends and family, changing one’s last name can seem like a no-brainer.  

But times, they are a-changin’. According to the New York Times, about 30% of women now decide to keep their maiden names, which is up from 14% in the 80s and 26% in the aughts. According to the article, this has less to do with feminism and more to do with practicality and convenience. I can tell you from personal observation, changing your name is a bit of a logistical pain.

Sometimes, though, I wish we had a different, less gendered and unequal, system for handing down surnames to our children. In my last novel, The Tithe, everyone’s last name looked something like this: “’Meryth d’ijo.” “D’ijo” means “child of” in Spanish, and “Meryth” was the character’s mother. In the novel, citizens name their baby girls after their mothers and their baby boys after their fathers. I’ll admit, as a literary sociologist penning this novel, I not-so-secretly enjoyed challenging patrilineality, the practice of giving all children their fathers’ last names and of tracing lineage through the father’s line.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic kinda-utopia. Okay, maybe not so unfortunately. Anyway, we have this system, and we have to navigate its traditions while balancing our own values and ideals.

Me? I’m not changing my last name. It’s a symbol of independence to me for sure, but it’s also a beloved gift my dad gave me and a symbol of all I’ve accomplished over the past 40 years. I’m happy to buck the system and join the 30% of American women who just don’t want to bother.

Happy Independence Day to everyone, no matter what that may mean to you and your choice of names!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fur the Love of Animals

All of my books so far but one include animal minor characters. In my novelette, Hunted, a big, chatty, black beast of a cat named Picante owns and demands obedience from our hero, Simon. I mean, come on – nothing says sexy like a man who puts his kitty cat’s safety before his own. In Hunted Past, Aunt Mona, who actually plays a pretty important role in the book, possesses a passel (Herd? Pride?) of cats, all named after cheeses. (Because cats and cheese, people!) In a manner not even slightly reminiscent of one of my many rants, Aunt Mona rather pointedly extols the virtues of spaying and neutering and rescuing homeless pets. Cough, cough. Anyway, in Hunted Dreams, a beautiful, blue pit bull named Mina fearlessly accompanies our hero, Reed, as he searches each night for his sleeping beauty, the Rubenesque Katana.
When writing The Tithe, I admit to spending a ridiculous amount of time wondering how I could sneak an animal into a book situated in an abandoned bunker in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I pondered snakes, scorpions, and even rats before realizing: 1. A pet scorpion? Really? Really?, and 2. Squeezing a spunky pet rat into the mix might bring a little too much Disney into my post-apocalyptic opus.
Oh, did I mention I’m getting married in July?
I love me the animals, and I’m not the only one. According to the ASPCA, we homo-sapiens-Americans faithfully serve 150-200 million dogs and cats. Around 40% of lucky households feature at least one furry overlord. And sure, not every person loves their animals enough to – oh, I don’t know – make them their maid of honor and best man in their wedding or something (just a totally random example), but we Americans go pretty gaga over our pets. We spend around $60 billion a year on their food, vet bills, toys, and, you know, that obscenely adorable satin tuxedo for the, you know, hypothetical canine best man.
When I read a book or watch a movie, I fawn shamelessly over any non-human beasties. (Heaven help the writer who brings a hint of harm to any of those furred, scaled, or finned protagonists! Allow me to assuage the fears of all current or future readers: No animal, real or fictional, will ever be harmed in the penning of my prose.) To serve the interests of fellow animal lovers (and we are legion), I devote at least part of my storytelling capacity to honoring the millions of beautiful beasts that exist alongside and enhance us.
So, yeah, my novels tend to teem with animal life. My made-up worlds just don’t feel as much like home without some furry distractions. How could I do otherwise, given how much I wrestle with my cats for possession of the keyboard and type one-handed while tucking my dog in the crook of my left arm?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Pinning My Identities

I love Pinterest. It’s such a poignant symbol of modern U.S. culture. It’s communication
Is anything funnier than soc theory humor?
through shiny, colorful, visual symbols. Per Jameson and
Baudrillard, it’s postmodernism at its flashy, depthless best. Also, Jameson would say Pinterest is another example of the flattening of technology, or the inward turning, postmodern use (implosion?) of technology to project our selves rather than striving toward new physical and tangible places. And, of course, we can’t forget Giddens, who would say this is the ultimate in reflexivity, or how we use modern, consumable culture to reflect on our identities and recreate our understandings of our being.

But enough theory. Just kidding – there’s never enough theory.

My pins say something about being a social justice warrior. This is not only accurate, since I imagine most folks who know me would say I’m rather committed to fighting for equality, but it’s also essential to my sense of self to portray this as part of me. When I’m dead, I want my grave marker (i.e., a totally old school meme) to say, “Here lies Elle, who fought so that others can live better.” It would probably include a kitty emoji underneath that. Because kitties.

An actual example from my Pinterest.
Social justice warriors (SJW) come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and flavors. We SJW-ify for myriad reasons and focus on countless social issues. Because we tend to exist in opposition to some forms of institutionalized oppression, we’re not regarded universally as heroes and trailblazers. This opposition often makes us even more committed to our identities and ever-more likely to voice them with volume and pride. We SJWs often sport bumper stickers and clothing (primitive, non-digital technology) that identifies us to those who oppose us but, much more importantly, to those who agree with us. My use of bumper stickers, literal political buttons, and Pinterest pins visually marks me as an ally. Other feminist, queer, or anti-racist activists know they, as Woody might sing, have a friend in me.

Also, when occupying a not-entirely-understood counterculture like fat activism, it’s enormously important to distinguish between fat people who still feel burdened by guilt and shame over their bodies and fatties who have politicized around their identities. Finding another fat, proud person, especially in South Dakota, would, yes, shock me, but also make my year.

And let’s be honest, being regarded as social justice warrior makes me look pretty selfless. I could do with a worse identity.

In other news that shocks no one, I love animals. I have two Pinterest accounts, and both of them teem with pictures of adorable furry, scaled, skinned, and feathered beings. I find great comfort in looking at pictures of non-human creatures. Animals and nature are my spirituality, and reveling in the joy and fabulousness of faunae is to me like attending synagogue. And, like many people of faith, I feel obligated to proselytize.

All this said, I’m aware, of course, that I’m one of many middle-class, White persons who finds inspiration in animals. Environmentalists tend to be White and upper middle class, in part because it’s kind of hard to worry about deforestation and habitat loss when you’re stressing over whether you can pay rent this month or agonizing over the toxic waste dumped near your house  (since, as we know, people of color are much more likely than White persons to live near commercial waste facilities). Understanding the racial and classed implications behind my love of animals helps me contextualize it, but that doesn’t mean I love my babies any less or still don’t squee at the sight of my neighbor walking his pug.

Let's be honest --
this is the real reason Pinterest exists.
Oh and no, I don’t use Pinterest for pictures of food or DIY. I don’t cook or do DIY (unless the “yourself” means, literally, “that person not me”). While I’m all over portraying my radical fat politics, putting my “Fat, Fierce, and Fabulous” board next to “Yum Yums” (note: not an actual board) might feel a little, um, itchy. Okay, yeah, but it’s mostly because I don’t cook, anyway.

Pinterest has become an important tool for me. Not only do I use it to perform my desired self, but I also find others who have pinned similar items and may just share some of my politics. It’s like a meet-up, but with pictures and pithy captions. Jameson says technology has flattened to turn us all inward, but Pinterest both projects my sense of self and allows me to find others like me, not an easy feat for a SJW living in South Dakota with her fiancĂ©e and many animals. 

Note: I wrote this post to help my Social Psych students navigate a course assignment that asked them to post pins to Pinterest and then analyze why they chose the ones they did and what that says about them as people. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Transgender Allies 101

What is a transgender ally?

Anyone who advocates for the cultural, social, economic, and political rights of transgender persons. Allies don’t have to march in parades or lobby legislators; we can work for transgender rights via interpersonal conversations, while posting on Facebook, by signing online petitions, and so on. Allies come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors.

What is privilege?

Every person is a glorious combination of our identities: our sex, race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, class, ability, family status, and so on. However, not all identities are equal. Structurally and interpersonally, we tend to assign more value, and therefore more status, to some identities (e.g., male, cisgender, straight, White). As individuals and as members of groups, we experience these valuations as privilege. This comes with a ton of unearned benefits, such as being listened to, earning more money, not worrying about violence, and not having our true selves questioned.

On the flip side, some identities are devalued. We experience these devaluations as oppression. Oppression comes in myriad forms, ranging from not finding oneself represented in pop culture to being at much higher risk of physical and sexual assault.

For example, I am a White, able-bodied, cisgender woman. I experience racial (White), ability (able-bodied), and gender identity (cisgender) privilege and oppression in my sex (woman).

Who has privilege?

All of us, albeit in different ways. It’s important to note we also experience oppression, although again, because our identity combinations are unique, not in exactly the same way as others.

How does privilege pertain to transgender allies?

Anyone can be an ally to transgender persons. If we are cisgender, regardless of any of our other identities, we experience privilege. Allies rock, but when our advocacy in any way contributes to the oppression of transgender persons, we are abusing our privilege.

Ways to be the Best Trans Allies We Can Be!
From One Ally to Another

1. We shouldn’t equate our own oppressions with those of our transgender friend/s. Whether we are genderqueer, pansexual, asexual, non-White, disabled, or whatever flavor of oppression/s we experience, it is not the same as being a transgender person. It’s no better or worse – it’s just not the same.
2. We shouldn’t assume we can relate to transgender folks because we know other transgender persons. Each person’s experiences vary. Some transgender folks may identify differently than we’re used to, may or may not “pass” (may or may not want to pass!), may or may not want to transition in any way, may use pronouns we’ve never heard of before, and so on.
3. Never out a transgender person. Let them take the lead in identifying themselves in various spaces. Keep in mind that in oppressive places, a transgender identity can be very dangerous.
4. Allies rock! That said, as allies, we shouldn’t presume to know the best way a transgender person should act, feel, behave, or advocate for themselves. Our transgender colleagues, friends, and family members may not want our help, and if they do, it may be in ways we don’t expect. We should never presume to speak for transgender persons. Allies are helpers, not saviors.
5. Try to avoid assumptions about a person’s sex, gender identity, pronoun preference, or sexuality, whether or not we know them to be transgender. Transgender persons differ from one another and may identify and talk about themselves completely differently than we are used to or might expect.
6. As allies, it is imperative that we listen to determine a person’s preferred pronouns and ways of discussing their experiences. If we can’t determine a person’s pronoun choice, there’s no shame in asking. Also, as the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, “Instead of using prefixes like bio-, real-, or genetic- to designate that someone is not trans, use the prefix cis-. Using real, genetic or bio sets up a dichotomy in which trans people are not considered real or biological.”
7. Avoid at all costs asking a transgender person their “real name,” their “actual sex,” or where they’re at in their transition. Speaking of transitions, they may or may not choose to transition using hormones or    surgery, or they may transition in ways we don’t expect; honestly, whether/how a transgender person transitions is really none of our business. Just as no one asks you what it feels like to have an innie belly  button or a double chin, so should we not presume to ask intimate questions about transgender bodies.
8. It’s lovely to show support, but we should be very aware of backhanded compliments. Some examples include: “You look just like a real woman!”, “You’re so brave!”, “I’d date him even if he is trans!”, “You do womanhood better than me!”.
9. In our daily lives, we have the wonderful opportunity to advocate for more inclusive situations and spaces: gender-neutral bathrooms, avoiding gendered language (I’m a huge fan of using “they” instead of “he/she”), asking about pronoun choice, shutting down transphobic comments and jokes, and countless other examples. Let’s use our privilege for the powers of good!
10. We may mess up from time to time. Let’s be sensitive to our transgender friends but show the same compassion to ourselves and one another. Don’t give up. We can work on ourselves while working for social justice.
11. Educate ourselves! We have the entire Internet at our fingertips and can learn about the issues facing our trans friends as well as their variety of experiences.

Sources: Elle Hill, Ph.D.; Terri Bruce, MA;;;;;