Monday, February 1, 2010

Iggy the Iguana by Melissa M Williams

Iggy recognized the aroma of sautéed spinach and mushrooms coming from downstairs as he nervously washed his face and combed his spines. On this particular morning, Iggy would have much rather crawled back in bed! For some reason, he had lost his appetite for his favorite meal of the day.

As the tired iguana tiptoed down to the kitchen, he carefully held his long, clumsy tail in one hand. Waking up his little sister, Molly, on the wrong side of the bed would be a morning tragedy. Molly was known for throwing major temper tantrums. Iggy sat down and stared hopelessly at his breakfast.

“What’s wrong, son?” asked his mother, when she noticed Iggy hadn’t touched his favorite dish. “Aren’t you feeling well?”

“Mom, what if I’m the only iguana in my class?” “Honey, are those butterflies fluttering around in your tummy again?”

“Uh, I guess,” admitted the shy lizard.

“It’s natural to be nervous about your first day at a new school,” Mrs. Green said, trying to comfort her son.

“I know, but what if everyone is bigger than me? What if I’m allergic to furry animals?”

“Sweetie, you can’t go to an all-lizard school forever!” his mom laughed.

“Why not?”

“Because, it’s time for you to meet animals who are different than you. Now try to eat some breakfast so you will have enough energy to concentrate on your lessons.”

Iggy had attended the same elementary school all his life in a suburban area outside of Houston, called Harris County. He never had to worry about making new friends because he attended school with the same twelve lizards ever since Pre-K. Iggy considered this group of lizards to be more like family than friends. The idea of making new friends was terrifying for the reserved iguana.

As Iggy began to eat his green meal, the back door swung wide open. Iggy perked up to the sight of his dad bouncing in with a huge, open-mouthed smile on his face.

“Good morning, Champ,” said his dad.

“Hi Dad, how was your morning run?”

“It was nice, but a bit humid. I think I got bit.”

“By a mosquito?” Iggy asked.

“Yeah, but I can’t complain. I can take the

Houston humidity and bugs for these flat trails any day. Besides son, we’re lizards. We like this heat.” Mr. Green was a professional runner. Iguanas are known for their speed and great running legs. Mr. Green’s daily life revolved around racing. He trained at Memorial Park and coached other runners on the side. The Green family had to move into the city so that he could be closer to the training grounds. Iggy wanted to be an athlete just like his dad one day.

Just as Iggy started to forget his butterfly problem, his mom walked over to the table and said, “I bet your dad was nervous on the day of his first race,” as she handed her husband a glass of water.

“I’ll say! Nervous and excited at the same time,” chuckled Mr. Green.

Yep, the butterflies were back. “I’m just nervous, Dad.”

“Well, of course you’re going to be a little skittish. It’s that fear of the unknown. But it’s a good fear. It means you’re alive and full of healthy energy, son!”

Fear of the unknown? It sounded like Iggy’s dad was talking about a mission to space or something, not fourth grade! Dad’s words just weren’t helping this time.

After breakfast, Iggy’s mom dropped him off at school, which was right down the street. “Just be yourself, honey. You are such a likeable lizard!” It really did pain Iggy’s mom to watch her son in such an uncomfortable situation.

“MEMORIAL ELEMENTARY,” Iggy read across the front of the school door as he slowly crept through the entrance. Due to the slowness of his creeping, Iggy didn’t have enough time to get his long tail all the way inside before the door

closed. “Ouch!” screamed Iggy. He turned around, trying to shake his tail loose before someone noticed his clumsy move.

“Are you okay?” asked a voice from behind.

Great. He did have a witness. Iggy slowly looked up to see a beautiful lime green and tan lizard.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Lizibeth. I know how it feels to get your tail stuck in the door!”

Iggy was a bit tongue-tied as he searched for something to say back. “That wasn’t my first time, either,” he shrugged. “I’m Iggy. Iggy the Iguana.”

“Whoa! Your tail is sooo long!” Lizibeth gasped as she looked down to see if his tail was hurt.

Iggy self-consciously pulled his tail close to his body, trying to hide its length. “I hate dragging this useless thing around all day!”

“I hear yah!” laughed Lizibeth. “So what grade are you in, Iggy?”

“Me? Um ... ” he paused, “fourth.”

“Me too!” she smiled.

Iggy quickly added, “And today is my first day at this school.”

Lizibeth tried to put the fidgety iguana at ease. “Oh, you’ll love it here. Everyone is so nice!”

As Iggy looked around, he noticed the clock on the wall. “We don’t want to be late on the first day of school!”

“It’s okay, we don’t have to walk far,” Lizibeth reassured him.

Both lizards started walking toward the fourth grade classroom. Iggy was happy that he had already made a new friend, and she was a lizard. It was nice to have something in common. Hopefully the rest of the animals would be just as friendly.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pretty Smart: Lessons From Our Miss Americas by Penny Pearlman

Lesson 1: Beauty from the inside out

“It’s wonderful to watch a pretty woman with character grow beautiful.” Mignon McLaughlin, author and former editor of Vogue

People say that because these women are beautiful doors open for them. The former Miss Americas interviewed for this book admit to that. But what they will also tell you is that the door closes with a bang if there is no substance behind the beauty.

Shawntel Smith (1996) said, “I’m going to be honest and say that appearance does matter. Being attractive will get you through the door, but it won’t help you keep a seat at the table, get the position, or have the opportunity. What counts is your intellect, your personality and the integrity with which you walk into a room. Your determination and perseverance are what will get you the job. A lot of beautiful women vie for the crown each year. So why not crown them all? There’s only one girl who can win the title of Miss America. It takes more than just a pretty face.”

Once you meet our Miss Americas, you can’t help but put aside any notions about the women who become beauty queens. Though many of them are certainly drop-dead gorgeous, you can walk down the street and see any number of equally attractive women. It’s not just their long legs or shiny hair that makes them beautiful. Their warmth, intelligence, poise and generous natures make them knockouts. The confidence and life-changing experience of succeeding at a high target they set for themselves and being spokeswomen for causes they support changed their inner perceptions of themselves and can change our view of them as well.

Tawny Godin (1976) observed that people who may at first appear ordinary become more beautiful as you get to know them. “The way you carry yourself, the way you walk into a room has little to do with your physical beauty. You could be the mousiest person on the planet in terms of the way you look, but if you believe in yourself and know who you are, people get it.”

As my friend’s mom used to say, “You know, the girl who won Miss America wasn’t that pretty before, but now that she’s won, she’s gotten much prettier.”

From the inside out

Some people who are considered beautiful base much of their identity on their external appearance. You may be drawn to them initially, but if they aren’t genuine, it won’t be long before you are looking elsewhere for companionship. Unless they nurture what is inside, their external beauty will fade as they age. “Being physically beautiful can change many times in your life at any age based on your personality,” says Ericka Dunlap (2004). “I’ve seen beautiful, exotic looking women who are arrogant, rude and pretentious. They would have been a lot lovelier if they had had a better attitude, because attitude determines your beauty.”

Nicole Johnson (1999) will tell you, “Beauty is not make-up and curls and glitz but is found in struggle or challenge, the beauty from within.” She recognizes that beauty can be an asset to open doors as long as it is more than physical. “Science proves that attractiveness is an asset in business. I would agree with that but I think attractiveness is subjective. I rely on attractiveness of the heart more than anything else. Along with my intelligence, my heart and my emotions are my calling cards.”

Donna Axum (1964) agrees. “I think anyone who is attractive, whether or not she is Miss America, has a leg up on less attractive people. It’s just common sense that it will get you through the door, but credentials have to follow. You have to be able to sell yourself, your abilities and your ideas if you are interviewing for a position. It’s like we say in the selection process for Miss America, you’ve got to bring the whole package.”

But many of the Formers discovered that their beauty and celebrity as Miss America could be a handicap in the professional world. It became, as Donna put it, a double-edged sword. “Many women will say that a certain person advanced so much farther because she is beautiful. That’s an excuse. If you’ve got the ability and the professional fortitude, then jump in there and get going. Those are the attributes that people are looking for. Without that you’re just another aging pretty face.”

Our Miss Americas have the ability to change our opinion of them by their authenticity, their intelligence, their genuine interest in others and their ability to enlighten and educate without putting others down. They encompass charm, wit, warmth and wisdom rolled into one lovely package.

Too fat, too thin

You would think that these women, given the highest endorsement of beauty by winning the crown, would see themselves as others see them. Not so. They are just like a lot of us. Many of our Miss Americas struggled with their self-image when they were children. They say that they did not feel pretty and cite crooked teeth, big ears and plump bottoms.

Gretchen Carlson (1989), who now shops in the petite department, will tell you that she packed a few extra pounds when she was younger. “I was a tomboy, not into my looks at all. I struggled with my weight my whole life, especially as a child. I was a chubby kid who faced a tremendous amount of ridicule. When I overheard a guy I wanted to go out with say, ‘She’s a really nice girl, but she’s too fat,’ I got my act together and lost thirty pounds.

“The morning after I became Miss America I shared that story at my first press conference. I thought it would be inspirational to young girls to know that you don’t have to fit into this perfect mold to end up becoming Miss America. I told the press that my brother used to call me nicknames like Blimpo. The next day the headline in the National Enquirer read ‘Blimpo Wins Miss America Pageant.’ That’s how they spun it. I thought I was giving a positive message.”

During her individual interview, Jennifer Berry (2006) was asked by one of the judges, “Do you think you’re pretty?” “We were in the middle of a political debate,” Jennifer said. “I couldn’t believe he asked me that. I was not popular in school. I had big, thick glasses, crooked teeth and curly, frizzy hair. I’ve been 5' 8" since I was twelve years old and grew up being teased. I told the judges that I had never thought of myself as pretty because I was tormented and made fun of so much. I was just dorky. I’m twenty-three years old and I’ve been Miss America but sometimes I still feel like that awkward little girl.”

Being with other women who are perceived as beautiful and accomplished can be intimidating. For many of the Formers, appearing at the national pageant was a bit daunting. Many did not feel that they fit the mold of a beauty queen, but they knew they had other qualities that would help them shine.

When Tawny Godin (1976) went to Atlantic City at nineteen years old, she looked around at the other contestants at a fancy dinner one night before the Pageant. “Miss Illinois was seated right where I could see her. She had a yellow dress on that night, long dark hair like me and false eyelashes. She looked perfect. I had never been that appearance-conscious as a teenager. When I became Miss New York State, the pageant people taught me how to use false eyelashes and made me cut my hair. I had hair so long that I could sit on it. That night I was looking around thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t belong here.’ I thought that you needed to know certain things and have a certain look in order to fit in. I definitely didn’t have that look. That just wasn’t who I was.”

Tawny characterized herself as a preppy who wore corduroy pants and crew neck sweaters with turtlenecks. She knew little of the techniques the other contestants employed. “Some of these girls were putting masking tape on their butts to hold their bathing suits down and using contouring to enhance their bust line. I had never even thought about doing anything like that. I didn’t even know that sort of thing existed. When I saw people putting Vaseline on their teeth I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.”

Lee Meriwether (1955) didn’t know she had been entered in the Miss San Francisco pageant until the day of the audition. Back then, someone else could sign up a contestant. “One of the fraternities at the University of San Francisco where I was in school had entered my name. To this day I don’t know who. I would never have entered on my own. All I knew about the Miss America Pageant was that it was a bathing beauty contest. I was not one to don a swimsuit very often. I grew up a skinny, awkward kid with big dumbo ears and a snaggle tooth. I was gawky and gangling. [Lee is almost 5' 9" tall.] When I didn’t get a role, people would say I was too pretty. But when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see that. My first rejection happened when I was twelve years old. I was told that I was too pretty to play Mrs. Lincoln. It’s happened over and over. I could have understood being told, ‘You’re a terrible actress,’ but it has never played right for me that the emotional depth I can bring to the role is negated because they think I’m too pretty.”

Several decades later Lee was surprised when she saw herself again in the 1966 Batman film in which she played Catwoman. “Just recently they had a retrospective of Batman at one of the theaters and they invited me. I thought that it would be fun to see my face on the big screen. When I saw myself I went, ‘Wow! I looked pretty good.’ Why didn’t I see it back then? Why wasn’t I aware of how I looked?”

As number eight in a family of ten children Angie Baraquio (2001) always thought her older sisters were prettier than her. “I always felt like I was too fat or too short or too something. When you participate in a pageant, people have this perception of you as being beautiful. It goes back to your own perception of yourself and your self-esteem. It took years for me to realize that the outside part will come when I just work on my inside.’

Every one of us struggles with doubts about our appearance at some point in our lives. We worry that we are not pretty enough, tall, short or thin enough. We wish our hair were straight or curly, our bottom bigger or smaller. When we realize that beauty comes from the inside out, then we can nurture our nature as much as we attend to our appearance.

What the judges see

Many people misconstrue the intent of the Pageant, believing that it focuses predominantly on physical attractiveness. The job description for Miss America describes a broad range of skills and personality characteristics. As a scholarship program that promotes the ideal of a well-rounded woman, the Miss America Organization looks for someone who “represents the best of contemporary women… The youth of our nation must be able to find her as someone to whom they can relate; but, at the same time, she must present a professional image when called upon to meet with corporate communities…” She is charged by the Organization to “be able to motivate people from every age-range and socio-economic background to action and they must walk away feeling that having heard Miss America speak made a difference for them at that moment in time… She is on call twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week for the duration of her time as Miss America... The role of Miss America is only limited by the capabilities and the desires of the woman who wears the crown… Miss America must be able to push herself and the organization to live up to the responsibilities of being such a person.” That’s a daunting task for anyone, let alone a young woman between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four.

During the Pageant process, each of the contestants meets with the judges’ panel for a twelve-minute interview. The public never sees these interviews, which are held during the week before the televised contest. The contestants know that their eloquence during this brief time can make or break their potential for being in the top fifteen and ultimately Miss America. They know that they must be articulate and knowledgeable about their platform, current affairs and a variety of other topics; be able to answer questions spontaneously and comfortably; exhibit an air of confidence and poise; and present their case as to why they should be crowned Miss America. That’s a tall order for a twelve-minute interview.

Donna Axum (1964), who is currently on the board of directors, lays out some of her specific criteria when judging. “The most important thing that Miss America does is talk to audiences, individuals and the national press and media. Her speaking skills have to be tops in my book. When I judge, I like to delve under the first question and see what kind of in-depth knowledge the contestants actually have on an issue. They’ve got to be smart. They’ve got to be quick-minded. On the other hand, they’ve got to be approachable, personable and relaxed when you talk to them, with a quick, easy wit. I look for a genuineness of heart and spirit, which is difficult to quantify, and a sense of compassion for people or causes. They’ve got to be talented because they may perform a lot on the road. I was one of the first performing Miss Americas. The more usable you are, the more appearances you have. They have to be stunning. When she walks into the room, people have to say, ‘Yup, there’s Miss America. She’s the whole package.’ ”

The Miss America Organization used to define the qualities that Donna looks for in the winner as confidence and poise. Today the Organization calls it the “it” factor.

Tara Holland’s (1997) goal was to have the judges see who she was on the inside. She felt that if she was able to communicate that, then she would win, regardless of the outcome of the competition. “The more involved I became in the system, the more sure I was that the only thing that would set me apart from the others would be how I conducted myself in that interview room. At the Miss Kansas pageant I had a very academic interview and was frustrated because I didn’t feel that my personality came through. I did win Miss Kansas, but I was determined that the Miss America judges were going to find out who I really was. I came to realize that that there could have been another young woman named Tara, with long dark hair who sang opera and had literacy as a platform in that room. Somebody could look just like me on paper, but I was the only person who had the thoughts, convictions and passions that I had. That was all that mattered.”

Tara ended her interview at the national Pageant feeling that she had succeeded in showing her best to the judges. “I’m passionate about the program because it promotes the complete package of what it takes to live a successful life. You’ve got to take care of yourself and your body. You need to work on what you’re naturally gifted to do and know what your passions are. You need to be able to communicate well, then you need to be involved in your community in some way.”

The judges I spoke with said that it wasn’t the winners’ physical beauty that set them apart, but their ability to command the stage, their charisma and self-confidence. The winners had that indefinable quality of poise that made them glow in a group of winners.

Vernon DeSear, a Pageant judge, watches the way a contestant connects with the audience. “The most important thing that I look for in any young woman is her ability to command the room and the stage.” Leonard Horn, former CEO of the Miss America Organization and a judge, said, “There is a charisma, a self-confidence that comes through to those of us who are watching or judging them. You can see that positive self-esteem just in the way they interact with the crowd. On the stage you can look at all the contestants and certain ones stand out. They have a confidence about them. They know who they are. They know where they’re going. They have a goal-oriented way about them. It just shows.”

Rebecca King (1974), who has been a judge and is on the board of the Miss America Organization, describes the “it” factor. “I believe you could put a Miss America in a room with a hundred young women and you’d find her in about three minutes.”

Having been a judge, Susan Powell (1981) is well versed in what that inner glow looks like. “It all happens in that private interview. There are strict guidelines about what you look for – about what Miss America should be. It’s a scary thing as a judge. You will be changing some young woman’s life. When she walks into the room and there is something about her, the way she walks, the way she speaks and the level of honesty with which she communicates, that inner something is apparent. It’s a quality that is almost indefinable. There is no hiding under the lights of that interview. As a judge you immediately eliminate thirty-six people, just from those first sixty seconds. Twelve minutes is really long if you’ve eliminated someone in the first minute.”

Four-time Miss America judge, Frank Deford, author of fifteen books including one about the Miss America Pageant. and an award-winning sports writer, came to understand what set the winner apart. “In the interview room you saw them differently than when they were on stage. If they didn’t have anything to say you knew that within the first minute and half. You could sense it. I was always looking for someone who was smart and engaging and also looked good. I found the Miss Americas I met almost universally to be very attractive people. I remember the expression that was used – she lit up the room. There was just something about her. They seemed to be more in control. They didn’t seem to be as programmed. That was a large part of it. You had the sense that they could go with the flow. They were prepared for anything.” He confessed to a change of heart once he started to participate. “I didn’t expect to like them so much.”

Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian who was a judge the year Shawntel Smith (1996) won, was impressed with the quality of the women who compete and the power of the Pageant to change lives. His initial skepticism morphed into admiration. “On television, you don’t really get the opportunity to know the girls. But when you are there for a few days and you are with these young women, you get a chance to know them better. I remember how when I watched on television, I would pick my favorite, but the judges would pick another person. I came to see that it’s because the judges know the person better. We see the contestants in different circumstances. When you’re judging, you spend a lot of time with them. But when you watch you wonder why the judges picked her.

“My perceptions changed when I got to understand the quality of the women. That’s what I would want my daughter to turn out to be – someone who is intelligent, who has great character, some talent and is motivated in what she is trying to do. I think any parent would be extremely proud of his daughter for going through that process.”

Shawntel spoke with Bruce after she won. “ He shared with me why he liked me. What he said meant a lot to me because the interview was the one area where I had been trying to set myself apart. When he saw how down-to-earth and practical I was and that I had a plan to promote my cause of school-to-work after I won the title, he knew I was going to be the next Miss America.”

During the interview process that the public never sees, the true spirit of the individual contestants shines. It is the woman who exhibits confidence, intelligence and the belief that she has what it takes, who makes the judges do a double-take and put the crown on her head. She has that “it” factor.

Swimsuits and success

The swimsuit component of the Pageant has long been controversial. The Miss America Organization has kept it as part of the competition for many reasons. The first Pageant in 1921 was held in Atlantic City as a bathing beauty competition to spur local tourism after Labor Day. Now, loaded with tradition, the swimsuit component is expected by viewers. In 1995 the Pageant surveyed the public about whether to drop swimsuit from the competition. Overwhelmingly the public voted to keep it as part of the program. Its entertainment value is not to be underestimated. Other pageants not affiliated with the Miss America system copy the swimsuit component and make it a centerpiece of their contests.

Over the decades its importance in the judging at Miss America has waned. Swimsuit now accounts for the smallest portion of the overall score and isn’t as highly valued as the public might think. Both contestants and judges see it as another way to encourage young women to live active, healthy lifestyles and to be confident in any and all situations. The maintenance of a healthy and fit body is seen as a sign of internal discipline.

Heather Whitestone (1995) sees value in the swimsuit competition, though she didn’t feel that way at first. “In the beginning I was aghast that I had to do swimsuit. I kept telling myself that it was only one minute in the competition. Today I think it’s a good thing because the woman who wins needs to be in good health and strong enough to manage all the travel. If she can’t take care of herself then she is not qualified for that tough job.”

The swimsuit competition is a challenge for many of these young women. They have mixed feelings about having to appear confident and poised in not much more than a couple of handkerchiefs and high heels on stage in front of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.

Even though Angie Baraquio (2001) found the prospect of parading in front of thousands in a swimsuit daunting, she knew she had to play by the rules. She even asked her priest about the appropriateness of participation when her mother gave her a hard time about wearing a two-piece swimsuit in such a public arena. He told her that there was no moral issue. “Your mom is very strict,” he said. “Don’t worry – I’ll get your back. I’ve got an in with the guy upstairs.” Along with his support, Angie was able to take that walk with confidence. “I’m an athlete. I know I need to wear the uniform. If I want to play in the game, I need to abide by the rules. I told myself, if I could do that I could do anything.”

She also counters the argument that being Miss America and especially the swimsuit competition belittle women. “If you say this is not an empowering thing for women, you’re wrong. You can’t knock it till you’ve tried it. The feminists say, ‘You have to walk around in a swimsuit.’ I said that I did it once, but I would never have to do it again. I just focused on trying to become the best that I could be. I was not starving myself. I was working out everyday, doing tae bo, lifting weights, watching my carbs and doing it the healthy way. I felt so much more confident once I did it.”

Deidre Downs (2005) understands why the swimsuit component is important. “I had never won a swimsuit preliminary, so I obviously wasn’t a standout in it but I think it has value. Your ability to walk across the stage in a swimsuit for twenty or thirty seconds and look confident and be poised is more important than if there is an inch of whatever on your thighs. The judges see that self-assurance and how you connect with the audience. Maybe you’re scared to death inside to appear like that in front of thousands of people, but you don’t show it on the outside. You go out there and be yourself.”

As an athlete, Deidre was comfortable with her body and wearing revealing uniforms. But even she was initially taken aback when she first received the Pageant-sanctioned bikini for the first time. “You were able to choose your color but not the style. About a month before the Pageant it came in the mail in a little zipper baggie. The director of the Miss Alabama program was with me when I opened it. She said, ‘I hope that’s not the whole thing. Is that the bottom or the top?’ I looked at her and said, ‘No. This is the whole thing, right in this little baggie.’ It was a string bikini and definitely more revealing than anything I had worn before. It was pretty controversial during the press interviews and garnered more media attention for the Pageant that year.

“The swimsuit competition is not a lightning rod for me even though I would characterize myself as a pretty left-to-center feminist,” continued Deidre. “I was out there pioneering even as a little girl when I played in the boys’ baseball league. I see it as more of the tradition of Miss America. Also, it’s such a small part of the scoring.”

Our Miss Americas discovered that they could handle anything when they were able to flash a smile, strut their stuff in a swimsuit and high heels and hold their head high.

First impressions count

We can’t help categorizing people by what we learn about them at a first meeting. All of us make flash judgments. We decide at first glance who is dangerous and who is not, who to like or who to dislike, often with no conscious thought.

Like it or not, your appearance can affect your future. By appearance, I don’t mean the face and figure that you were born with, but what you do with them. Someone once said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Anyone can change her appearance through the use of subtle make-up, a great haircut and good lighting. You can manage your body with regular exercise, healthy nutritional habits and clothing appropriate for your shape and size. Small differences in your physical appearance can create big difference in people’s perception of you.

Kylene Barker (1979) feels that to be a winner in anything, grooming is extremely important. “I believe in first impressions. First impressions stick with people. My grandmother even at eighty-nine gets up every morning, puts on her make-up, has every hair in place, gets dressed and always looks beautiful.” Kylene continued, “Beauty is first a positive attitude that you translate into make-up, clothing and fitness. We’re living in a society today where too many people don’t do anything to fix themselves up and don’t take care of themselves. I believe in exercising and eating right. Taking care of yourself and fitting it into your life has to become a priority. Being your most attractive is what helps people be successful. If you feel pretty you give off pretty vibes.”

“People don’t understand what the Pageant does,” said Tawny Godin (1976). “You take a young woman who wants scholarship money. Perhaps she’s never felt that she was the prettiest or the best at anything. But once you enter the Pageant and you know that you are going to hit the stage, something happens to you. You know that you’ve got to be the best you can be. Sometimes it’s more than you thought you were capable of.

“You find out that you can be a better pianist, or you pay more attention to your voice and learn to sing better, or you get interested in current events, or realize that a little bit of exercise makes a big difference. You are constantly raising your expectations and belief in what you can achieve. That’s fantastic! How can that ever be a bad thing? The outcome has to be better than what you started with.”

If you pay attention to your appearance, then people pay attention to you. Dress for self-respect. When you look great you promote your own self-worth. It’s also a sign of respect to others. If you want to be perceived as professional, dress professionally. If you want to be thought of as an artist, dress in a more creative way. If you want to be looked at as a rebel, then don a rebel’s clothes. Every cultural icon has a uniform.

The secret of perpetual curiosity

People who are curious about the world are more interesting to others. Sit beside someone who at first glance looks bland and engage them in a stimulating and lively conversation. Later you will wonder why you thought they weren’t attractive.

Donna Axum (1964) said, “Those who have shallow interests or no interests at all other than how to preserve the skin that’s hanging on their skeleton or the next shade of lipstick are self-absorbed. Women who are interested in the world become more interesting to be around.”

The Pageant recognizes this truism by weighting the off-camera interview so heavily. Contestants know that they have to be well versed on many topics and clear about their positions on a variety issues. To prepare they read newspapers, study what is happening in the world and educate themselves about important historical events.

Everyone who ever achieved greatness was a lifelong learner. They never assumed they know it all. The people you associate with and the books you read will be the key activities that will change you the most. Spend your time with smart people and you will become smarter. Associate with people who are doing what you want to do and you will learn how to do it too. Hang out with big thinkers and you will begin to think big. Connect with creative types and you will learn to tap into your own creative juices. Besides you’ll never know how useful something you learn today might be tomorrow.

Mary Ann Mobley (1959) said, “The day has been successful if I have learned a bit more about the world, other people and myself. I want to learn something new every day until the day I die. I see big challenges as opportunities for learning. I don’t think about age. I feel like I can’t wait to see what will happen next.”

To perfect her craft, Lee Meriwether (1955) never stops studying. While she was in rehearsal for a show, a group of school children came to visit the theater. Her advice to aspiring actors in the group was simple. “Stick with it, study and never stop reading.” One little girl asked Lee if she still studied. Her reply was heartfelt. “Every day,” she said. “I read about the theater. I read autobiographies. I study people. I’m studying you right now. I’m watching how you are acting and reacting to me. Who knows, I may have to play a little girl or a woman who thinks she’s a little girl.”

Donna Axum (1964) believes in the importance of perpetual curiosity for herself as well as others. “I like to read, particularly biographies and historical novels. I’ve always had a desire to experience different cultures. I have an inquisitive mind. That is an important element of success as well.”

If you have not focused on self-improvement as a regular part of your routine, you may want to consider starting with those ideas and actions that will have an immediate impact on improving your life. Understanding more about finances, interpersonal skills or technology could improve your debt picture, your relationships and your employment prospects.

Being a lifelong learner has greater benefits than broadening your horizons. Learning something new feeds your mind and spirit. Doing so makes happy new brain cells and will keep you younger longer. Research has shown that when you learn new skills, your brain builds new neural pathways. We spend way too much time feeding every part of our being but our intellect. We often stuff our thoughts with hours of channel surfing, our faces with food and dull our senses with drugs and alcohol. You can nourish your mind by learning to play a musical instrument, speak another language or cultivate your garden.

Why not put down the remote and use the time you spend flipping channels on yourself? The library and internet are great resources for accessing all kinds of information. Find a listing of free lectures in your area. Join a club focused on something that interests you. Go back to school to finish your education or get an advanced degree. It’s never too late. In time you will be amazed at the confidence you’ve gained alongside new-found wisdom and skills.

Being perpetually curious will help when you don’t know the answers. If you are curious you will be able to identify the resources you need and where to find the answers to your questions. Be patient with yourself. Learning takes an investment of time and energy that will pay you huge dividends.

Cultivate your character

If you want to attract people to you be kind, be genuine, be honorable. When you make people feel that they are important in your eyes and you show them respect, they will stand a little taller in your presence and remember you. Being nice doesn’t mean that you let people walk all over you. When you show sincere interest in who they are, listen carefully to what they have to say, you have paid them the highest compliment.

General Colin Powell had a powerful impact on Heather French (2000). Since her platform was veterans' issues, she and General Powell were together a number of times at veterans’ events. He told her about a Maya Angelou quote that she took very much to heart: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Heather was inspired by Powell's words. "When you give people that attention as Miss America, it makes them feel special. It doesn’t matter whether someone is two years old or in a wheelchair, every person deserves the best of who you are.”

The responsibility Heather felt as a representative of all the Miss Americas that had come before her and all who would come after extended to everyone with whom she came in contact. “You realize that you can have such a profound influence on someone else’s life. You remind yourself, ‘Don’t screw up.’”

Jennifer Berry (2006) saw how powerful being nice could be. “As Miss America I found that by being nice to people I was changing the perception that we’re just pretty girls. Even better was when they would tell me that I was fun and smart and real. Creating the environment as Miss America so that when I walked out of a room people had a different perception of me was really cool. The way you present yourself – first impressions – is vitally important. The word beautiful is in the job description for Miss America. It implies so much more than physical beauty.”

Our Miss Americas cultivate their characters and attempt to live lives worth emulating. Integrity and sincerity, intangible though they may be, are visible. Those women who become more beautiful with age exhibit such character traits in abundance. Integrity is evident in their interactions with others. What could be more appealing than someone who does what she says she will do, who takes responsibility for her actions and shows sincere interest in others?

Rebecca King (1974) said, “You have to have a strong moral compass. It keeps you focused. It helps you determine who you are and where you are going. You have to have that sense of integrity and character to carry you through confusing times. It’s basic. You have to do what you say you’re going to do. In business it can come down to a handshake. If I have an agreement with another attorney over the phone, it’s done. People count on you. If you’re not as good as your word, what good are you?”

We make emotional connections to people who exemplify high ideals. When we are with them, we feel the power of their focus and attention. They exude a genuine self-confidence. Just being in their presence makes us feel uplifted and special. That is how they capture our hearts and minds.

Susan Powell (1981) recognizes that inner beauty in others when she speaks of Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943, who successfully convinced the Miss America Organization to start awarding scholarships in 1945. “She was Miss America at a time when the Pageant was huge – queen of the universe. I just love Jean. I find how she is aging really fascinating. She’s gorgeous. She speaks her mind in a forthright but gentle way. She makes me feel important every time I’m with her. I don’t know how she does it.”

When you make people feel better about themselves, they will feel better about you. We are drawn to people who enhance our own sense of self. Our Miss Americas know this.

As I witnessed their interactions with others, I found them to be uniformly gracious, warm and patient. A little girl came up to Heather French (2000) and Heather got down to the child’s level to talk to her. For that moment, there was no one else in the room. Mary Ann Mobley (1959) took the time to ask a waiter about his family at a restaurant she frequents and write a thank you note to an airline employee who had helped her. Jennifer Berry (2006) and Shawntel Smith (1996) were welcoming to people who recognized them on the street. They all will pose for endless photographs with fans and listen to what someone has to say with patience and grace. These are the qualities that all great leaders and successful people have.

And when they see someone in distress, they feel compelled to reach out. Phyllis George (1971) has been deeply touched by the effect she has had on other people’s lives. “We need to let people know that they’re special. Sometimes you can say something to someone and not know the effect it has on them.” She told me a story about a lunch she had with her friend, Sue Ann, one snowy day in Lexington, Kentucky. “Behind me were two women, one of whom was crying and couldn’t stop. The other one was consoling her. As these two women were leaving, they walked by our table. I placed my hand on the arm of the one who had been crying and said, ‘Whatever it is that you are upset about, it will get better. It will, so please don’t think of the negative. Please think of the positive. I’ve been there. I’ve had those times. Just promise me that you’ll try.’

“Not too long after, her friend walked into a shop and saw Sue Ann. She asked Sue Ann to tell me that the woman who had been crying that day at Southern’s was planning to commit suicide. Her son had moved across the country and gotten into drugs. She blamed herself. She was recently divorced and was going to take drugs that very day. Because I had touched her and told her to not think about the negative things, but to think about the positive things in her life, she walked out the door and said, ‘If Phyllis George can do that, I can do that too.’ And she survived.”

Phyllis, like so many of her Miss America sisters, believes that there is a responsibility that comes with the crown. “If we can reach out to people, we should. We’ve been blessed with this amazing honor of being a Miss America. By showing that I cared, I saved a life that day and didn’t even know it.” By turning on the power of nice we tap into the very best that we can be. When we lift ourselves, we lift others.

When Phyllis won the Miss America Pageant in 1971, the women’s movement was in full flower. At that time feminists were vocal about their feelings that the Pageant was demeaning to women and would stage a protest at events when a Miss America was present. Phyllis tells of a time when she did an appearance at an automobile showroom in Dekalb, Illinois. Several women came to picket. “Here I am, a small town girl from Denton, Texas, at the highest moment of my life having won Miss America. It was a freezing cold day and they are outside picketing me. So I went outside and asked them to come in out of the cold. I asked them what their issue was. They believed that I was being exploited, but I said, ‘This program gave me opportunities to get a scholarship and have a springboard. I got to play the piano in front of millions of people and now travel all over the country. What’s wrong with that?’ They said, ‘You wore a swimsuit.’

“Then I said, ‘You’re doing what you’re doing because it is important to you. This is the way you want to approach life. Well, this is the way this small town girl from Denton, Texas is doing it. I got a lot of scholarship money. I’m meeting a lot of important people that maybe can help me with my career. I don’t feel like I’m being exploited. If I did, I wouldn’t be here.’

“They said that I wasn’t like the others. I tried to help them see that my Miss America sisters feel the same about the benefits of participating. I asked them to please respect the direction I’d chosen for my life.” Phyllis may not have altered the stereotypes held by other feminists, but that group gained a whole different perspective on what the Pageant was really about.

Donna Axum (1964) knows that her celebrity does not set her apart or put her on a higher level than others. “Humility is an important characteristic of being Miss America. You have to be able to relate to people in all walks of life across the country, have compassion for their status or the problems that they are dealing with. If you don’t have a degree of humility about you they won’t open up to you. Humility, though obvious to others, is invisible to those who possess it.” Now that’s beautiful.

We aren’t born blank slates. Each of us comes into this world with certain personality characteristics and capabilities. I’m not advocating you be someone so outside of who you are that you don’t recognize yourself. What I am advocating is that you take a look at yourself and decide whether you are pursuing your potential. Each of us has a range of achievement within which we function. When you actualize your highest self you are at your most beautiful. Then you are beautiful from the inside out.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chapter 1 - The Baby in the Bag

Chapter 1

I was really nervous while I waited in the Green Room, back stage on the “Tonight Show”. This was my first time on television and I was invited to appear because I’d written a short novel about surfing that was then made into a movie. I remember watching the wall-mounted monitor as Jay’s first guest, the handsome movie star Rock Studstones, looking larger than life, appeared to promote his latest block buster action movie.

Jay made the introduction. ”Please welcome a good friend of the Tonight Show, Rock Studstones!”

The curtain parted and Rock peacocked out, giving that little pistol finger point over to Kevin, the band leader.

Rock looked super cool in his tailored black blazer, designer blue jeans and white skin tight shirt, his highlighted pecks appearing as if they were made of hard plastic, which they probably were.

As the audience screamed its approval Rock strutted over to Jay, looking like the big dog in the proverbial junkyard. They shook hands and gave each other a friendly hug, like old friends do. And I had to follow that!

Jay continued, “Rock, it’s always good to see you. How are you, my friend?”

“I’m fantastik Jay,” Rock replied, in his Austrian accent.

“You look great. I see you’ve been working out.”

“Ya, you know, I do vat I can to look good for da ladies.”

“Speaking of ladies, how’s your girlfriend, Chi Chi Gigante?”

“Jay, you kan’t believe everyding you read in da tabloids. We are nodding but best friends, you know.”

“Best friends with benefits!”

The audience chuckled, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Rock smiled his electric silky-smooth used car salesman way. You know the kind that seems three quarters genuine and one quarter deceitful. Man, was he cool.

“So Rock, tell me about your new movie. I love the title, ‘Everyone Dies’”.

“Ya Jay, it’s an action movie. The main character, me, is a mild manner account, Jack Numbers. He stumbles across a money laundering scheme and discovers you know, dat da money is koing to a group of midget terrorists who vant to destroy da world.”

“Dwarfs want to destroy the world? Sounds like a really short story!”

That Jay, he really cracked me up with that one.

“Why do they want to do that?” Jay continued.

“Day are angry because all da fast food chains super size everyding. Da leader of da midgets, Jumbo Shrimp, had a terrible incident vid a super-sized meal. He fell into da drink cup and almost drowned.”

“Oh waiter, what’s that dwarf doing in my drink?”

“The back stroke!” the audience yelled back, da dum.

“So, you take on the dwarf terrorists?”

“Ya, da’s vight.”

“I watched a preview earlier and I really enjoyed it. But there seems to be a lot of gratuitous violence.”

“True. I vouldn’t recommend taking da kiddies. Vait for da video game.”

“Who else stars in it?”

“Jay, we have a great kast. The beautiful Martha Pumphandle plays my love interest and da African-Mexican actor, Pacito Jones plays Jumbo Shrimp.”

“Alright, well, let’s take a look at a clip. Do you need to set this scene up?”

“Ya Jay, in dis scene I’m in da terrorists’ secret underground hideout. I’ve been captured and tied to a conveyor belt dat’s slowly winding toward a buzz saw, you know.”

“Sounds like the Lilliputians have an axe to grind. Let’s take a look,” Jay said, swiveling his chair to see the flat screen behind him.

The monitor cuts to the clip. I watched the scene. And like Rock said, he’s tied to a slow moving belt headed toward a spinning screaming buzz saw. I couldn’t see the dwarf terrorists. All I could see were the tops of their heads, little hands and arms flailing from behind that belt, looking like a wheat field waving behind a fence.

“Well, Jack Numbers, seems as if you’ve met your match,” Jumbo Shrimp said, even though I couldn’t see him.

“Ha! It vill take more dan you to best me. I vill never let you destroy da world.”

“Soon you’ll be cut down to size, Jack Numbers.”

“I do not dink so. You vill always be half da man I am.”

I watched as Rock wiggled his hand free and using his diamond studded Rolex sliced away his ropes, sprang off the belt, somersaulting as he did, wrestled free a machine gun from one of the small guards and began spraying bullets all around. The dwarf terrorists scampered away to hide behind scattered boxes and in the darkened corners, like cockroaches suddenly caught in the light. All the while Rock was screaming, “Hasta luego, you vittle terrorists.”

Afterward, the audience exploded with cheers and applause.

“Mr. Attola? You’re on after the next commercial break,” one of Jay’s interns then informed me.

I looked up to the monitor just in time to hear Jay say, “We’ll be right back with the author Parc Attola after this commercial break.”

So, I followed the intern to the back of the stage and waited. I could feel the sweat begin to gather under my arm pits, like dew hanging from a tree. I was glad I wore a tee shirt.

“Okay, Mr. Attola, once we come back, Jay’ll introduce you. After he does, walk on out, over to Jay and take the seat next to his desk.”

Finally, we’re back on air.

“You may not know my next guest, but he wrote the novel ‘Bigger than Big Wednesday’ that’s just been made into a movie and it’s getting rave reviews. Please welcome Parc Attola!”

That was my queue. I swallowed hard, feeling my neck muscles push down the little saliva I had like a snake choking down a rat, and walked out into the bright lights. I couldn’t see the audience. All I saw was a black abyss. Yet, I could feel hundreds of eyes scanning over me. I wanted to be cool too, so I gave Kevin that same pistol finger point. Kevin looked at me like I’d just peed in his corn flakes. It wasn’t a good start.

I walked over to Jay and we shook hands. His was cool and dry. Mine was wet and clammy. As I walked around his desk and sat down, I noticed Jay wiping his hand on his pants. Rock was sitting next to me. So, I shook hands with Rock and said, “Midget terrorists, man that’s too funny.”

Rock merely nodded his head in that you’re a loser kind of way.

“Parc, welcome to the Tonight Show.”

“Thanks Jay,” I said, as polite clapping dribbled from the audience.

“I’ve read your book,” Jay continued. ”I thought it was very exciting and emotional. Are you a surfer?”

“Yeah, but I’m not very good. Not much surf in Florida.”

“Accept during the hurricanes!”

More laughter.

“So, how does it feel to see your book on the big screen?”

“Well Jay,” I began, crossing my legs and noticing the lint on my dark socks, “it’s not exactly the same story. After I sold the rights, the producers told me that there needed to be some changes, to appeal to a wider audience.”

“Oh really? What changes did they make?”

“Well, for one thing, there’re no Killer Whales off the Florida coast. Also, in my novel, the main character doesn’t drive a Ferrari.” I continued, uncrossing my legs and sitting back. ”He’s a sixteen-year-old kid, abandoned by his father as his mother struggles to make a living and raise him to be a man. And he definitely doesn’t hang out with Laird Hamilton. But, the producers thought the movie needed a big name surfer in it. They even have the kid involved with the pop star, Britney Spirits.”

“How’d that make you feel when you heard about that?”

“Like a virgin in a prison shower with a new bar of soap!”

The audience actually laughed at that one as Jay tee-heed like he sometimes does when he hears a sexual innuendo. Things were looking up.

“What a crazy world,” Jay commented.

“Yes it is, with the war and everything,” I replied, trying to make small talk, as old friends do.

“Speaking of the war, what do you think is the number one problem facing this country?”

“Well Jay, it may not be as important to everyone as, say, the war, but I’d like to see universal health care.”

The audience clapped approvingly. So, I continued, encouraged.

“I mean, I can’t understand how the richest country in the world can’t provide decent health care for its citizens. People can’t afford prescription drugs any more. They now have to go to Canada or Wal-Mart to buy them.”

“Kevin, you know something about drugs and Canada.”

The audience snickered as Kevin smiled at Jay.

“Parc, do you smoke pot?”

“I’ll take the fifth on that one. By the way, Kevin, is it 4:20 yet?”

Now the audience began to whoop and holler, cheer and clap. Things were going great. I was funny and the audience seemed to like me.

“What would you do about the war?” Jay continued.

“I don’t know Jay. I’m not a movie star.”

Oops! Well, that did it. I never should’ve mentioned the war or dissed the Hollywood elite. That’s when I’d inadvertently stepped over that line into the thick sand of politically incorrect free speech. This is where my story actually begins.

After my slight of the beautiful people, Jay, I guess, wanted to stir things up. He turned to Rock and said, “Rock, haven’t you come out against the war?”

“Da, I have,” Rock answered, his square chin jutting forward from beneath his mouth, looking like Mount Rushmore. ”Da Bush administration has done noding but lie to da American people. Da President stole da election and his fascist regime has driven dis country down da vong path, you know. I know for a fact dat dis President planned 911 to get us into da vor.”

Now, I try to stay out of politics as much as I can. In my opinion, all politicians really want is to attain and maintain power, kind of like organized religion. I’m convinced that they really don’t care about anything else. But, I couldn’t let this go.

“Rock,” I turned and said, “didn’t you say that if the President was elected, you’d move out of the country? Yet, here you are. What’s with that?”

The audience became silent. It felt like I’d farted during a church sermon. Jay sat there looking like the cat that’d swallowed the canary.

“I vas speaking metaphorically, you know. I can do more to fight dis vicked administration vight here.”

“Get out. You’re just like that other actor who raged about getting out the vote. And he wasn’t even registered. What a bunch of hypocrites.”

Oops again! But, that did actually feel good to say.

“Now Parc,” Jay said, trying to regain a modicum of control.

But I couldn’t stop. I felt the situation going down hill and like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver I struggled to regain the audiences’ approval.

“What kind of name is Rock Studstones anyway? Sounds like you’ve got pebbles for stones.” Hey, I thought it was funny. Nobody else did as the silence from the audience grew steadily louder.

“Ha dare you!” Rock responded, his ears turning red.

“Yes I do, you pussy.” I really had no idea where that came from.

“Vat did you call me?”

“A pussy.”

“Vi I ought to.”

“Stand up Nancy and I’ll shove my foot so far up your ass, you’ll be tasting my toe jam for a week!”

They cut to a commercial after that and my time on the “Tonight Show” ended. Jay called for security. Rock gave me the finger, even after I’d asked him for his autograph, and I already had the twenty dollars he charges right in my sweaty hand. They wouldn’t even let me stick around and listen to the musical guest, the Pewbs. The only person who said anything nice to me was Kevin, and all he said was “Goodbye”.

“The Baby in the Bag, A Politically Incorrect Tale”

By Doug Hanau