Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crowning glory...

This weekend, we tuned in to watch the annual Miss America pageant, televised live as it has been for decades. As we sat down, my seven year old daughter, a girly-girl who loves dress up clothes, Disney movies, singing at the top of her lungs, and playing with her makeup kit, who also happens to be the kid who, earlier that day, finished a kid's triathlon like a boss.....asked "what's Miss America?".

My reaction:

This might come as a surprise to many of my older friends.  You see, I was a child beauty queen. Honey-boo-boo, I was not, but I began competing in pageants at the age of 8, and went all the way to the Miss Louisiana pageant in the Miss America system.  11 years....the most formative of my life....spent navigating the tricky waters of high stakes pageantry. I have many friends whom I dearly love, admire and support who still are very involved in that world.  

As a young girl, it was nothing but fun, from what I remember. Sparkly crowns, numbers magic-marker-ed on paper doilies and prancing around onstage at some random, rural high school....or, if it was a big deal, the stage at the local college in the big city of Shreveport.  I won a lot of trophies. I rode in parades, tossing candy to people on the street with my name on a cardboard sign, taped to the car door. 

As I got a bit older, in middle school, I began entering larger pageants with higher stakes, at one point being crowned "Little Miss Louisiana" and touring the state as such.  That was a really wonderful experience and memory, and while I remember the slightly nasty competitive edge that was building in me, it was still mostly a positive experience, despite that fact that I was mercilessly bullied by middle school peers when my school posted my "title" on the marquee.

As I progressed to adolescence and the state title preliminaries, the game changed. For one thing, the cost rose incredibly. All of the sudden, the "wardrobe" budget was out of control. You just had to travel to Arkansas to meet the man who would provide you the gown.  (and the earrings, and the shoes, and...and...and....) You just had to pay big bucks for a little old lady to sew you a custom swim suit.  After you had done all this and won your title and were basking in the glow of the spotlights with the crown barely settled on your head, your 5'7'', 117 pound self was told that to compete at the state pageant, the first thing you needed to do was lose 15 pounds. Yes. During the "post-win" conference, where you meet with your "handlers"....right after the pageant. 

That's jacked up, people.   And my mother and I knew it. 

I think that was the turning point for me.  I won that preliminary pageant, and went to college 6 weeks later.  I went to college and started figuring out who I was, and who I wanted to be, and "pageant queen" didn't make the short list. Now, I will be the first to admit that some of the skills and talents I acquired through pageantry did indeed help me become who I wanted to be.  The interview skills helped snag a full ride college scholarship.  The voice lessons were absolutely the best investment my parents could have made, as I still sing for the public and for pleasure and my voice and my ability to use it properly brings me great joy.  My stage skills translated to a 20-year-and-counting run in community theatre that has been an absolute building block of my person, and has provided me with lifelong friends and experiences that I would not trade for any amount of money or fame. I'm not exactly sure where I would have acquired these skills had it not been for pageants.  However, looking back, I do wonder about "the chicken or the egg" nature of that rationale.  Was I successful in pageants because I innately had those talents and skills, or was it pageantry that developed them? Are winners born or created? (Yep, that one's for you, Mom)  I have a dear friend with a similar story and journey through pageantry who translated her skills into a successful career as a news anchor, and yet another who is still a talented musician to this day.  I am not dismissing the positives that those years brought into my life, and the possibility that others could have reaped similar benefits. 

I do, however, question the legitimacy of the entire idea of beauty pageants in a very changing world. 

I wonder how a pageant contestant can compete in "physical fitness" in swimsuit, claiming that it's a healthy lifestyle she is promoting, when she is using makeup to enhance her abs and wearing a tiny bikini glued to her butt on TV?  If we want to recognize physical fitness, why doesn't Miss America hold a 10k run during preliminary competitions?  Why the bikini?  Why not bike shorts and a tank, and aerobics?  You see, the "physical fitness" argument rings hollow to me.  Let's be honest. What people really like are pretty girls with perky boobs in bikinis.  They like them prancing around on stage in lots of makeup, on television.  They don't like them hidden under a baggy T shirt and sweating.  Women like showing off hot bodies in small bathing suits, and if you don't believe me, hang out at a beach or water park for an hour.  I have no issue with women choosing to do that.  My issue is having a woman do that as a prerequisite to being selected as a spokesperson for critical issues such as domestic violence, diabetes awareness,  child abuse, and the list goes on. The pageant industry, particularly the Miss America system, has tried to walk a very bizarre tightrope, trying to find a beautiful, strong, passionate woman who is well, spoken, smart and talented, who can be a champion for a cause and make a difference, with one caveat: she also has to look amazing in a bikini and high heels, have no cellulite, and not have her ass jiggle when she walks.  

Wait. Whaaa?

See. It just doesn't make sense.

I wish the pageant industry would just stop trying to change the world. If you want to participate in a throwback from decades ago when women and their bodies were viewed in a much different way than they are now, then just do....that.  Don't try to make her into a Nobel peace prize winner and an ambassador for the rest of us while you are at it, because the fact that she was given the opportunity to become this ambassador wearing a bikini and rhinestones kind of takes away the legitimacy of the entire thing. 

My daughter will not compete in pageants.  Correction.  My daughter will not compete in pageants at my suggestion.  About a year ago, she got a flyer in the mail for some pageant where the big national winners won a trip to Disneyworld.  There were photos of fancy dresses and crowns and all the trappings.  I let her look at the flyer. I asked what she thought about it.  This was more or less the conversation we had:

K: Well, what do you think about that?
E:  These are pretty dresses!
K:  Yep. Very pretty.
E:  You can win a trip to Disney!
K:  Yep. A few people will.  That's true. 
E:  Not everyone will?
K:  No. Not even close.
E:  Could we go to Disneyworld without me having to be in a pageant?
K:  Sure thing.

End of discussion.

You see, I truly believe that I can provide opportunities for my daughter to gain the positive skills and talents I learned through pageantry without submitting her to the dangers of focusing on her appearance and her body, or more specifically, her appearance and her body as they compare to other people's appearance and body.  You see, we can't change that. God gives us those things.  Sure, we can lift weights and eat no carbs and do cardio and make the most of what God gives us, and we should, to an extent.  But I have matured to believe that the amount of time it takes to fashion a body and lifestyle that can compete in pageants at that level is at the expense of developing things that are far more important.  Our body is the vessel. It is the wrapper. It contains what counts, it is not what counts. It contains what we should be judged upon, it is not what we should be judged upon. 

We, as women, have struggled long and hard to be viewed in a light that pageants, in my opinion, simply cannot, by their very nature, promote. We aim, as a modern society, to recognize inherent beauty in a person and value ideas and talents that make an impact on our society.  As the mother of a daughter, and of a son who will one day be a man, I fight photoshopped images, sexist music videos, tween clothing with suggestive, sexualized themes and gender-related stereotypes. These things are important to me.  I  cringe in a tiny way when someone comments on how pretty my daughter is.  I usually respond, "and she is just as sweet and smart as she is beautiful".  We are not there yet in changing the way people think about, speak about and relate to our entire gender. I can no longer make pageantry fit with the way I view myself and my daughter in this world. 

But who knows....maybe the pageant system can survive with its seemingly incongruous focus issues. Miss America this year was crowned to a shriek of horror and gasps of incredulous shock felt round the internet. Why? She is amazingly smart.  By all reports, she is a very well educated and successful human as far as that goes...heading for a doctorate and poised to change the world.  She's fit and pretty.  Maybe not traditionally pageant pretty...but she is attractive in a real sort of way.  Kind of like the woman you see at a restaurant and say, "she looks very well put together."  No, the shock was because her talent consisted of tapping a red plastic cup in rhythm to a very simple song she sang while sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the stage.  A plastic cup.  Yeah.

I keep wondering---Maybe that appealed to the judges because she did not seem to take herself very seriously.  She seemed to think, "Ah, what the hell.  This will be fun."  That's the kind of girl I can get behind: the kind who likely drank a big red solo cup full of beer at a barbecue and started banging it on the ground in front of her law school buddies and said, "Hey, what do you guys think?  I should totally do this for my talent at this pageant I'm entering."  

And guess what? People with balls like that....they DO change the world. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Precious Memories...

Tonight, I was sitting in my living room, watching a movie with my children, and my phone gave it's little blip that a text message had been received. When I glanced down and saw that it was a number I didn't recognize, my heart made a little groaning noise.  Texts like this sometimes end badly, ya know.

What I received was a zooming roller-coaster ride back to my childhood that rather rapidly changed the outlook of my whole evening.

It was a photo:

It was captioned "Precious Memories" and was sent from a very dear childhood friend of mine, who, not so long ago, bought the home I grew up in. She found this messy love letter to my mom, penned by me, 30 or so years ago, in the inside of a bathroom drawer. She could have chosen to smile and think back to those days, and go on about her drawer organizing or whatever she was doing...but instead, she took the time to hunt down my cell number and deliver this memory to my heart.

The fact that the home I grew up in would be for sale to anyone is probably one of the main things in my life I have had difficulty letting go of.  I'm not a grudge holder, and am not the sort to hang on to pain or negativity until it damages,  like some people tend to do. I'm basically a realist, frequently can be heard saying, "it is what it is", and typically bounce back from things that make other people kiss dirt for a good long while. I'm proud of that part of me. Resilient.

However, the fact is that my childhood home, dreamed up by my Mom and built in part by my Dad, is now a place I have to drive by and point out to my children like a historical marker. It is no longer and will never be the place where my kids go to visit grandparents. They will never sleep under the roof that sheltered me during the years that made me who I am. I grieve that. There are tears as I type it. Divorce robs you of certain things, and I know that all too well. My kids know it and live it daily. Maybe the "pink brick house" in the country is just the scapegoat for my grief over more than one family that isn't exactly how it should be. That's a pretty big grief. But, hey, it's a pretty big house. And it was built well, so it can take it.

Lots of people move around a lot as kids. There are families that live in a half-dozen houses or more before their kids hit high school.  They pack up, rearrange, re-negotiate. Their lives are fluid and enviably mobile and exciting. We were not that family. We were planted. We named cabinets and drawers according to their permanent occupants. We were predictable and settled and our home was dependable, so that a young girl had no reason to ever believe a note to her mom in a drawer wouldn't be read over and over again until the end of time. We occupied that piece of earth and those walls that were built on it in a way that I don't feel I have ever occupied a space since.

Until "we" didn't.

When I lived in Africa for a year, and I would feel a bit homesick, I would close my eyes and walk through that home in my mind. I was so incredibly in tune with that physical structure and the sounds and smells within, that I could practically teleport there. I still can.

I can walk into the rose colored carport where the Chrysler Imperial leaves fuzzy gouges in the paneling when careless kids and moms open car doors. I can get the big square Dictograph alarm key off it's brass cup hook in the "ski closet" (remember...we named closets and drawers after their occupants?). It smells of Armour All and slightly mildewed lake water covered rope and life jackets.  I can put it in the fussy lock in the metal plate outside the back door and turn it until the led goes green. Then I can open the back door and step into the hallway of the kitchen, onto that cushy brown vinyl floor that was patterned to resemble wood planks. I can glance in front of the white ceramic flat top cooktop to the place on that floor to where it has a triangular gouge, melted by an exploding plate when I tried to heat a roll on that cooktop on a dinner plate. I can look out into the back yard where I ground corn on a tree stump for hours, dressed in an indian costume, convinced I was a pioneer, over to the tree that I whacked with a stick to make the seed pods flutter down like tiny helicopters, to the big hole Daddy mowed around for years...the one I dug to be the pond for the pet geese my parents led me to believe they would actually allow me to have. (I think they thought the eggs would never really hatch, or that I would lose interest and not really dig a pond. They hadn't had quite as much experience with my tenacity at that point.)

I don't go back into Dad's bathroom, but I know there is a purple bottle of "Gee, your Hair Smells Terrific" in the shower and his hairbrush is hidden above the medicine cabinet so that we might forget it's there and not steal it from him.  I remember the time he drilled a hole through the handle and chained it to the towel rack, but I guess that kept him from using it, too, so that booby trap was short lived, if memory serves me.  His "Re-loading room I don't visit much. I know it is full of muddy boots, ammunition, and strange things I don't understand. I like to steal the pieces of soapstone he uses in the oilfield that always litter the countertop, amongst the quarters and dimes that I also take as my own. They look and feel slippery and comforting in my pocket.

The playroom....past the breakfast room where I sit solitary on "my" side of the dinner table, with Dad to my right, in perfect position to steal my pork chop long before I am ready to give up the bone, and directly across from my brother who is poised to reach with his fork to get whatever else he might grab if I turn my head. Mom is to his right, nestled up against the sewing machine in it's semi-permanent, (except for holidays) position at the head of the table, with square dance costume material under it's presser foot. That playroom, with the jungle patterned wallpaper that is just busy enough to almost cover our clandestine scribbles between the lions and the giraffes....I am fond of coloring in their eyeballs, almost certain nobody will notice but me.

I walk back through to the living room, where the enormous rough beam in the vaulted ceiling always makes me try to imagine the tree it came from...how big it must have been and how on earth someone had created that beam from it....out the front door to the white porch swing where Mom holds us while we watch a storm, singing us hymns so that we might not grow up like she did, with a parent fearful of God's thunder and lightening. I see it clearly now. We all work so hard to not re-create mistakes, don't we?

 "He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone..."

Past the fireplace with the matching rough wood mantle, permanent nails for our red velvet stockings and Dad's gleaming muzzle loader with the inset brass starburst hanging over, like a prize. Or, like Pa Ingalls, which is ok by me.

Down the hall,  the carpet transitions from messy grey, stained by the stray Cocker Spaniel with bladder issues I brought home from a college camping trip, to green shag, which was the base layer to a thousand childhood games.  Won't stop long at brother's room...it never really smells great, and the bare mattress he prefers to sheets and covers skeeves me out.

In the corner of the house, the wind whistles and makes an awful howling noise even when the weather is reasonably fair. This is where I find the square room with the watery ocean-striped wallpaper and the ceramic plaque with my name on the door. Here are the closet doors that always have to be shut and the white eyelet curtains that have to be pulled over "just so" and latched on a nail to hold them closed while I sleep. The waterbed that I begged for mercilessly until I received it for my 9th birthday, sits, warm like a hug. Trophies. Lots of them. Posters of a white fur seal and a cheetah in a tree from World magazine. A record player.  A desk.  A speaker with a creepy talking bear phone. A holy water font decorated with the Blessed Mother that is always dry. This...this... is a space that I occupied as a five year old child, until I returned home from Africa at 22. A lifetime.

Down further is the "blue bathroom" with it's daisy wallpaper and scrolled, swirly fixtures, where I sit and bother my mother as she tries to bathe in our only tub, after picking the lock with a q-tip.  The best of conversations are had while I sit with my back to the wall and bother the hell out of her.  She does protest, but not so much that I feel she really wants me to leave. There is old aquarium tubing and a set of poker chips under the cabinet. I don't know why.

Tucked between the bedrooms is the "office", where Dad's desk looms...off limits, especially the gold and black striped pen that sits like the Holy Grail in the top drawer.  I'm not sure how we grow up knowing that if we dare to touch it we had better put it back exactly as found, or....or....I don't even know what would happen. Maybe that was the point.  The "square dance closet" is on the back wall.  It's my fluffy storm shelter. I spend my entire childhood convinced the voluminous piles of sherbet colored net petticoats would protect me from tornadoes.

Mom and Dad's room with the massive wooden furniture is opposite mine...where I stand on the windowsill and get as close as possible to Kirk Cameron on the 19'' tube television.  The ironing board is furniture, it's cover thick with spray starch from my Daddy's habit of crispy jeans. (I was almost an adult before I realized it wasn't supposed to be permanent. I'm often guilty of the same thing in my home today.) I raid Mom's nightgown drawer for her smell during the long weeks she visits Fontana. The bathroom sits at the end of their room where I apply Max Factor Pancake makeup with a wet sea sponge while mom puts spiky hot curlers in my hair, every single morning before school.  There are metallic gold butterflies floating in a yellow wallpaper sky. The avocado green shower is where we were tortured, long after bedtime, forced to wash lake water out of our hair. The cabinets behind us, holding Christmas, Easter, and the T-shirt collection of our lives.

"Hands off my Tuts"

The sink, where I find tiny bits of ash from her Virgina Slims that she forgets to wash away so I won't know... and the cabinet underneath, holding secret and clandestine boxes of Tampax and Always that fascinated me long before I needed them. The vanity, with the rickety white metal chair with avocado green tufted upholstery, where I sit to write a message for her to read. In the drawer. The drawer and the message that are there tonight. . . that will still be there tomorrow.

Places we love and have lost are never really gone. Try it. I'll bet you can teleport to somewhere right now...somewhere lost but not gone.

Some day, I will take the children to visit my childhood friend who is making her own home there, filled with her children and her memories. It will give my son and daughter a concrete vision of where Mommy grew up. It will give me a sense of peace, I think, to breathe air within those walls again.  It will be ok, that it is home to another family. It is ok, I think, because how it was 30 years ago has never changed in my mind.