Friday, August 29, 2008

Staycation All I Ever Wanted

I confess, I am somewhat amused by the advent of the "staycation," defined as basically, staying home during your time off from work or school. The New York Times even had a whole article about this supposedly new phenomenon.

Almost EVERY vacation I had when I was growing up was a staycation. You know why? Because we were too poor to go anywhere. Staycations are nothing new. Who the hell is so out of touch that they thought they needed to make up a word to describe what probably millions (at the very least, hundreds of thousands) of people have been doing for a long time? Because a lot of us are too poor to go anywhere. These are probably the same people who looked at me like an idiot when I asked if they went to Rome, New York or Rome, Italy on their vacation. Well, there IS a Rome, New York! So there.

Travel is great; don't get me wrong. I have done a reasonable amount of travelling since becoming an adult (a long-distance relationship that spanned the Atlantic Ocean helped a lot), although nothing that could be considered too exotic. Various places in England and Paris. I have been to Hong Kong and Phuket, Thailand. Phuket sounds like it's exotic, but really, it's Destin, FL with more Germans and less spoken English. This is interesting in and of itself. Back in the day, going to Europe was a big deal. Now, Europe isn't just for rich people anymore. Europe, big deal! Now, those people who complain about how air travel is like Greyhound now (you know what, it isn't- have these people actually ridden Greyhound?) need to find better, more exotic places to visit to show that they are better than all those people who go to London, because, hell, everyone goes to London!

This is why people that we know do things like go backpacking and mountain climbing in disputed territories like Kashmir. If I had to choose between this and going to England for the (counts on fingers...) well, I've been a number of times, England would win hands down!

Disclaimer: we are planning a trip to Egypt and Kenya in January, so I'm just as guilty of it as anyone.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Architecture School

I discovered, via reading the boards on Television Without Pity, that there is a new show on Sundance called Architecture School. When I clicked on the forum to read about it, I discovered that Architecture School follows a group of undergraduates at Tulane's architecture school.

Oh God. Oh God. This was where my friend (the one who died) went to school. He was in this program. The show follows an aspect of the program that wasn't in existence during my friend's time there- the students design and build houses for low-income residents as part of the gradual rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina. My friend graduated and died in 2001, so well before the need for this program.

This brings up a question- do I watch this show? I don't have Sundance (or cable at all anymore, see my previous posts), so I would have to buy it on iTunes.

I am leaning towards not watching; I feel that it would be wallowing on purpose. Maybe people who have never grieved don't understand this impulse that draws you in to face that black hole of grief and jump in. When you are early in the grieving process, you fall in that hole all the time on accident. As time goes on, you learn to avoid that hole. It is still there, though. Maybe it is smaller, but make no mistake, it's still there. And sometimes, yes, you jump in on purpose, especially after you have learned how to avoid it. There is something about losing someone so close to you. It tears you apart, and even though you want to be better, you want to get back to normal, sometimes, when you are mostly back to normal, you miss that grief. Well, not the grief exactly. You miss the person, and the grief reminds you of them. The reverse is true as well- be reminded of the person, be reminded of the grief.

I don't really jump in any more. The desire to do so surprised me, a little. I might just watch some of the clips on Sundance's website. Probably that will give me my fill. To tell the truth, I think architecture is frightfully boring, so once the initial shock is over, I'm sure it will be just like every other reality TV show that I have abandoned.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Too Much TV

We cancelled cable so my husband wouldn't watch so much TV, and now I am the one having the problem! Who knew that when you combine TiVo and Netflix, you end up watching TV for hours??? I think I am motivated in some way to get the biggest bang for my buck from Netflix (even though they slow down your service if you are too quick with the returning).

My sister did assure me that it's normal to binge on DVDs when you first get Netflix, but then you taper off to a normal level. I hope so.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why I Hate Talking Shop with Non-Academics

Actually, I hate talking shop period. I think this is another sign that academia is not for me- I find talking about it so boring. However boring it is talking about it with other academics, it is so much worse talking about it with non-academics who really don't understand the weirdness of academia or Ph.D. programs. Let me count the reasons why.

  1. They just don't understand. Anything. They ask you innocuous questions that raise your blood pressure like "When are you going to be finished?" and "Are you finally graduating this year?"
  2. They offer the DUMBEST ideas for your dissertation. Here is a tip for all of you who have never gotten to the point where you had to write a dissertation- if you came with an idea from reading The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, watching the local news, or corporate training, it has almost CERTAINLY been done before.
  3. The question "So do you know what you're going to do when you're finished?
  4. You have to try to explain your complicated, esoteric research idea to people who, even if they're smart, don't know the context. I'm not talking about general ideas, like "My dissertation is on 18th century American literature" or "paternalism in the Japan in the 1950s", but very specific details, because they are sure that they can understand the exact details and relationships of the variables.
  5. Worst of all, I don't like talking about academia with non-academics because I find that I get annoyed and snappish. I'm a bad conversation partner on this topic.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ugliest. Nursery. Ever.

My sister just found out she is pregnant, so I sent her the link to Apartment Therapy's nursery/baby/parent site, ohdeedoh. Apartment Therapy's aesthetic is mostly too modern for my taste (I hate that "grandma's estate sale" look that is passing for the trendy "mid-century modern" these days), and ohdeedoh leans that way too, but there are a lot of cute ideas for people who don't want that ugly pale yellow/green ducks theme or overly cutesy nursery themes from Babies 'R' Us. But this nursery goes too far.

You know what, people? "Eastern Bloc" is a horrible nursery theme. And no, that is not a black and white picture.

The whole post has other rooms that use grey that aren't so bad, but grey is probably my second least-favorite color for a nursery, followed only by black.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sexism in Academia

Did you guys read this article in the NYT about applying Title IX to academics? Hoo boy.

I have to say, the tone of the article made a lot more sense when I found out that John Tierney used to be the conservative columnist for the NYT's op-ed page.

More later.

Back to the Dark Ages (of TV)

We took the plunge. We cancelled cable. We didn't just switch from digital cable to regular, or from regular to the local-channel-reception-only package. We went cold turkey. The Comcast tech came today to take away our box. I made sure he took the remote too, since I bet they would charge us for it.

The seed for this drastic step was planted by the digital reception converter boxes that we got. Our TVs are old with cathode ray technology. No shiny new flat screen HDTVs for us, at least, not until the price for them plummets. While we had digital cable in our living room, the small TV/VCR (double whammy of obsolete technology) just had an antenna. I had been seeing the ads warning us that we will lose reception in February 2009 if we didn't get one of these boxes, so I signed up for the government-issued $40 coupon. I signed up for two of them, in fact, since we have two televisions. We have lived without cable in the past, it wasn't inconceivable that we would live without it in the future. I wanted the option, anyway.

Turns out that the reception is fabulous and crystal clear. Apparently with digital, you either get it clear and perfect, or you don't get it at all. When we saw how good the reception was, we thought, "Hmmm.... we could cancel cable and save a little money...."

A few weeks later, we had a very real discussion about the fact that my husband comes home from work and gets sucked into every episode of Law & Order and crappy movie that TNT/TBS/FX can put on. It doesn't matter how bad, if they blow crap up, he's there. This seems weird to me, because while I watch a lot of TV, I can't watch just anything, I have to watch things that I really enjoy, a category that does not include Lethal Weapon 3 or SVU. He felt that he should be doing work in the evenings instead, but just couldn't resist the siren call of Sam Waterston and former Senator Fred Thompson. As a good wife, I made the offer that we could get rid of cable, if he really thought this would help him do work at night. Plus, it would save us about $70 a month once our Triple Play deal expired.

We decided to do it. To make up for it, we signed up for Netflix, a decision I am not sure is terrific, given how long it is taking them to ship our initial movies out, plus we are getting TiVo, which was part of the deal I made with myself for passing my oral exams. I am not really sure how great TiVo is going to be with broadcast, but at least now I should be able to watch every single episode of Globe Trekker.

Our TiVo is supposed to arrive today. By UPS. This means that I will need to sign for it. However, since we don't have cable anymore, and our Netflix movies aren't supposed to get here until tomorrow (and I'm not even sure that I'm getting one that I want- I know that discs 1 and 2 of Season 2 of The Wire, another show that I hate but my husband loves, are supposed to arrive, but no word on my copy of The Holiday), I wanted to run to the library to get some DVDs to tide me over.

My local public library is a lot like TJ Maxx in a bad neighborhood. You walk in and it's dirty and unorganized with sketchy people in there (seriously- my library has homeless people looking at bikini pictures on the internet), and at on any one given visit, you can't find anything you want. However, when you start stopping in all the time, you find treasures. Masterpiece Theatre DVDs! That new non-fiction book you've been wanting to read! An audiobook of Terry Pratchett's YA novel The Wee Free Men!

Unfortunately, Friday is usually not the best day to find treasures, as everything tends to be picked over. However, I was desperate. I have one episode of the first season of Big Love left (and my liking for this show has gone downhill over the 11 episodes that I've seen so far), and beyond that, nada. And I was worried I would miss the delivery of our TiVo. I tried to make my library trip as brief as possible, and ended up with Masterpiece Theatre's Adam Bede (someone at the library must have ordered the George Eliot boxed DVD set because they have all these DVDs), the sequel to Before Sunrise called Before Sunset, and Supersize Me. Not my top selections, but they will do.

Meanwhile, at the library, I am shaking with fear that the TiVo is going to arrive while I am gone, and then we're not going to get it until Monday, because UPS doesn't deliver on Saturday. I quickly do my cursory browse of the new non-fiction, cookbooks, and craft books, pay my fine (because I always have fines on my account), and hightail it out of there in the hopes of catching Big Brown, should he happen to come by.

There's no yellow/brown post-it on the door of our apartment building. Phew! It ended up being anticlimactic, though, because the UPS guy didn't even need buzzing in. He just left the package, which was half my size, downstairs by the mailboxes.

So for this weekend, it's George Eliot, PBS, fast food, and me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How to Pick a Ph.D. Program

I have a number of friends who have come to me for advice on applying for a Ph.D. program. I have collected my "best of" advice from my emails, and I thought I would share it with my readers (all 4 of them). If any of you have advice you'd like to add, feel free.

So You're Thinking of Getting a Ph.D.

1. Don't. I can't say this strongly enough, and yet, I have never been able to convince anyone not to do it. The only reason you should be getting a Ph.D. is if you absolutely need one to pursue your chosen career. This means you want to be either an academic, or you want to work in a science lab. Bad reasons to get a Ph.D. include:
  • "I'm sick of my job. I'd like to take a break." Believe me, a Ph.D. is not a break.
  • "A Ph.D. is sooooooo much more impressive than a masters." This may be true, but even put together with the previous reason, it's not worth it.
  • "The economy is in the crapper." Don't worry, it will turn around well before you get out in 5-8 years.
  • "I'm great at classes." Ph.D. programs are not really about classes.

Basically, don't go unless you are 100% sure you want to do it, have really done your homework, and know that having those 3 letters after your name is essential to doing what you want to do and there is no way you can do it otherwise. So I haven't convinced you? All right, fine. Read on for advice on how to pick a program.

2. Talk to current students or recent Ph.Ds to find out who has the best programs in your desired area. You should find these people through your personal networks, not randomly email ones you found listed on the school website. My colleagues and I get emails all the time from people (usually from outside the U.S.) wanting information on how to get a Ph.D. in the U.S. We generally ignore these emails. It is nothing personal, but we just don't have time to email random people we don't know. Use your LinkedIn contacts, ask your friends and family, ask your undergrad advisor, etc. Academia is a pretty small world, and you might be surprised whom your friends know.

If you want to do academia, you will be better off going to the very best program that you can get into. You will have more options this way. Students are great for finding out this because really, they don't have anything invested in you coming to their school. Ask them "what are the best programs in this area?" It will be helpful if you have a narrower idea of what area within the field interests you. So if you want to get an English Ph.D., it will help you pick a program if you have a general idea of whether you are interested in Shakespeare or 20th century African-American literature. If you're interested in the latter, it's not smart to go to a program, no matter how great the overall reputation, if they don't have any scholars there currently doing anything with 20th century African-American literature. This won't be a problem with bigger programs, who tend have enough people to cover most areas, but even so, some programs are stronger in particular areas than others.

3. Realize that it is going to take you MINIMUM five years to finish. Some programs (like mine) like to sell their programs as four-year programs. The only people I have heard of who finished in four years came in on DAY ONE with their dissertation idea and dataset. If this isn't you, you're going to take five years. If you're lucky. Ask how long it has taken the most recent graduates to finish. If you can get the median time to graduation, this is helpful too. Ask about the requirements. I picked a program with an abnormally high number of requirements, and this means that students in my program take a long time to graduate.

4. Once you get in, do your homework to pick the right program. You will get the most honest information from current students (with the caveat coming later in the post), but be sure to talk to faculty as well. Best case scenario is that your school will fly you out so you can see the campus and talk to students and professors. I am assuming that if you got this far, you want to be a professor. If you don't, see #1. Seriously.

Here's the big caveat about talking to current students. They will be too scared to say anything bad about their program or the professors (especially the professors). Here's why. They don't know you. We don't know if we tell you "Oh, Professor X is horrible" or "in our program, the professors use the grad students as slave labor." that you're not going to go to the next school on your list and say "Yeah, I heard from students at PreviousUniversity that the professors there are a nightmare." And then it gets back to the faculty at our school! So we're not going to say a word that is directly negative about our program. Now, if I am talking to a close friend, I might be more candid (although, truthfully, most of the negatives in my program are administrative, and I feel fine about being candid about these) If you are clueless about how this works, you can miss some important information or be blindsided by some pretty nasty stuff when you arrive. So if you hear them avoid answering a question, or give neutral or noncommittal answers, feel free to interpret that as a negative. They will be positive about things that are positive.

5. With this in mind, here are some things you should ask about.
  • Ask where graduates from the last several years (I would say the last five years) have gotten jobs. Some departments have this information on their websites, but others will say that they've placed graduates at "a variety of universities including Flagship State University, University of SmallState, and FancyPants University." When the placement info is given so generally, it's a pretty safe assumption that the person who got a job at FancyPants University is probably the one superstar from 10 years ago, and this is not at all representative of where the average graduate from this program gets placed. All else being equal, you want to go to the school that has the best placement record. The caveat is that I think it is better to go to a school with a slightly worse placement records if the faculty is more supportive and helpful and nice.
  • Does this school function on a "star" system? I know of some programs where if you're a star student, you get a lot of attention, but if you're a middle-of-the-road student, you will have a hard time getting resources and attention.
  • Try to suss out the nature of the relationships between the faculty and students. If possible, you want to go a place where the faculty members treat the students with respect, support them in their learning, give them opportunities for coauthorships, and aren't abusive.
  • What is the funding like? Do you get grants or do you have to TA for most of your money? TAing is not as bad as you hear sometimes; it depends on the professor, but the less TAing, the better. How many years do you get guaranteed funding? Is it a problem to get funding after you're not guaranteed? For instance, in my program, you're only guaranteed funding for 4 years, but really, there are so many TA positions that it is easy to get funding as long as you need it (if you are in town and able to TA).
  • Do they kick people out a lot? This is a very important question to ask. Some programs that I know of get rid of 50% of their students within the first two years. This is crazy to me. You really don't want to go somewhere that kicks out a lot of their students. This is often a sign of department dysfunction. Sometimes kicking people out is a necessary evil- people don't progress, can't cut the work, etc., but this should be somewhat of a minimum.

6. This brings me to a very important point: Do NOT go anywhere that does not give you a masters if you either leave or get kicked out after a certain point (usually after the qualifying exams) If you fail your exams or if you pass them but decide to leave because academia isn't for you and you've realized that you've made a colossal mistake, you want to get something for your trouble without having to sit through 5-8 years of misery. Sometimes programs will say that this is so they don't reward people for dropping out or getting kicked out, but this is BS.

7. And finally, do not go to a program because there is one professor there for whom you would like to work. This is basically putting all your eggs in one basket. People go on sabbatical, they move to other universities, or worst of all, they could be abusive and horrible. There should be at least a few professors there who appeal to you.

Edited to add: One more thing-- ask current grad students at one university about other universities. Because while we won't talk smack about our own, we have no scruples about giving you the scoop on other places, if we know anything.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Recommendation for all the struggling academics

Getting to ABD was a long time coming for two reasons. First, the way my program is structured means that I had a lot more hoops to jump through than any other program that I know. Second, I spent about a year making not much progress.

At one point, my advisor had the "Come to Jesus" talk with me that went something like "I'm concerned that you're not making progress; maybe you should talk to someone." I had been exploring the idea of a dissertation coach, but hadn't made that last step. I know from experience with therapists that it can be tough finding the right one, plus, it means that I would actually have to start doing, you know, work. At this point, a not-small part of me kind of hoped I would get kicked out of the program. But a Come to Jesus talk? Time to get real.

I contacted one prominent dissertation coach, and she didn't have room in her schedule for new clients. She referred me to Gina Hiatt, a colleague of hers who did have time to take on new clients. I had one session with Gina, who told me that she was about to start up a new pilot program for-- get this-- online coaching (which has now morphed into Academic Writing Club. It was going to be much, much cheaper than one-on-one sessions, so it sounded like a reasonable strategy to try.

This is, in all seriousness, the smartest thing that I have done since the colossal mistake of starting the damn Ph.D. program in the first place. I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this was in building writing discipline from the ground up AND, even more importantly, getting emotional and practical support from other academics in a way that is lacking in many programs. I think I have a pretty good program overall, but I still don't have this kind of support from my advisor or peers.

It's $50 a month (if you sign up before the deadline), and it is well worth the money. It's a very affordable way to get dissertation coaching to get you going. If you are struggling with your program, seriously, give this a try.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Certain Girls

I just read Jennifer Weiner's sequel to her first book Good in Bed. This one is called Certain Girls. I didn't enjoy it as much as Good in Bed, but it was okay. I had to giggle to see the crazy sorority dealings at DePauw University in Indiana referenced in the book. Cannie (main character) is reading the news on line and mentions reading this story. They deserve all the shaming they can get.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


By the way, I finally took my oral exam (and passed), so now I am ABD! Thank you, Jesus! Incidentally, this was my reaction when they told me that I passed. It got a laugh. I was not being as ironic as they thought, though, considering I called my mom sobbing the hour before (I was really nervous) and had her pray with me. Good times.

Kate Shindle's Blog

So my favorite Miss America, Kate Shindle, has a blog called Shindle's List. Reading it reminded me why she's my favorite, and also, why seeing her win made me think "Hey, I can do this too!" I found it by googling her after seeing her on a recent episode of Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods on MTV.

Another pageant-related blog (the blog itself isn't about pageants, but it's written by a friend of mine that I know from pageants) is my friend Kim Jobe's new blog called The New Impatience of Jobe. Kim used to be a regular columnist and reporter for her local paper in Corinth, MS. She is now pursuing a different career path, but started a blog so she could keep writing her column. Kim is a genuinely good, warm-hearted person, and a great fan and supporter of all her friends.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Queen of Femininity

Last night I watched the Miss America pageant for the first time in three years. I am probably the only girl in America who did not dream of being Miss America, walking down that runway in Atlantic City, waving to the crowd. Nevertheless, I stunned all my friends and family by competing in, and getting 4th runner up, in a local pageant during college. I remember my mother's reaction when I finally confessed that I had decided to enter the local pageant in my hometown during a semester off from school, a self-imposed break to combat burnout and depression. When you are burned out, depressed, and have gained about 10 pounds, what is a more natural thing to do than enter a beauty pageant?

My mother just looked at me and said, "Are you crazy?" To her, beauty pageants were the domain of superficial, insecure women and girls. I could see my mom thinking "I did NOT raise you to be a grown-up JonBenet Ramsey!" Everyone has their role that they play from childhood, the familiar identity that you slip into despite yourself, and mine was not "the pretty one." That label was reserved for my younger sister, despite the fact that people would mistake us for identical twins when we were out and about. I was, wait for it, the "smart one." I am convinced that my sister got the "pretty one" label because she definitely wasn't the "smart one," so what else could she be? (N.B.- she was also the "crazy one"- crazy in a standup comedian kind of way- and the "creative one") Plus, her eyelashes are longer than mine. So what was the non-pretty one doing, thinking she should enter a beauty pageant? My parents raised me to be studious, to go to good schools, to make something of myself, not to walk across a stage in a swimsuit and high heels. Also, didn't I know that beauty pageants were trashy?

All my life, I have done things that people didn't expect me to do. I am not talking about coming behind to win a competition that no one thought I could, I am talking about taking up activities and pursuing goals that seem incongruous with who people think I am. Not like dealing drugs, but things like going to business school when everyone thought I would go to a liberal arts college and become a lawyer. Sorority rush (but not actually joining one; we all have our limits). A surefire way to get me to not want to do something is to tell me that I need to do it, or worse, that I have to do it. Telling me I can't do something doesn't really have that contrarian effect that spurs the instinct to fight and triumph, but I find that if I am going against the advice of everyone, usually, I am on the right track. (I should have paid attention to this when I decided to get a Ph.D, which everyone except my husband and therapist thought was a terrific idea.)

So competing in the Miss America system was the perfect thing for me to do. I didn't know ANYONE who competed in pageants. Not a SOUL. The germ of the idea was planted when I read about the local competition in my college newspaper. I am sure that they were trying to bring in smart girls from an untapped pool, and it sort of worked. I didn't do anything about it, but started paying attention to Miss America a little more. This was right before Kate Shindle won Miss America, and to me, she is still the ultimate modern Miss America. When Kate Shindle won, I thought, "hey, I could win Miss America too!" Kate was a student at Northwestern at the time, which was another prestigious college, her platform was AIDS prevention, which was pretty avant-guarde for the traditionally-conservative Miss America situation. She supported needle exchange AND she wore a two-piece swimsuit in the first year that they were allowed. All the other conservative girls were saying that they didn't want to wear one, it was too risque, but Kate not only wore a two-piece, she wore a boy-cut two-piece. Kate seems only marginally involved in Miss America now, but she remains my favorite all-time Miss America because she showed me what was possible.

So I entered the local pageant in my hometown. If there is anything I am good at, it is figuring out how to play the game (whatever the game is), and I threw myself into pageant prep. I didn't have the money to spend on real prep, but I borrowed pageant videos from the director- local, state, national, interview tapes, and I watched them over and over and over again. I picked out the rookie mistakes, learned what not to do. I went out, bought a two-piece swimsuit that didn't look TOO bad, neutral colored Nine West high heeled strappy sandals (that I still wear!) and a plain evening dress which I dressed up with a band of rhinestones around the empire waistline. I made a "question map" with every question I could think of from my info sheet (which, in my experience, is where 80% of my questions came from, in some way, shape, or form). I started hitting the gym. I practiced walking around my parents' formal living room, and was delighted when my sister told me that my back looked "hot" from all my weight-lifting at the gym (hopefully that meant people wouldn't notice my ass as much). I took advantage of the free session with the Beauti Control consultant that was available to all the contestants (this was actually very helpful). I brushed up on the one piano piece that I knew that I thought was sufficiently flashy to do okay in talent.

Despite all this prep work, I still had a ways to go. My evening gown shoes ended up being too big when I was wearing pantyhose, and I clomped around on stage. I still needed to lose weight. I didn't know how to walk on stage, or to stand properly (there is a "pageant stance" similar to how you see starlets pose on the red carpet). Still, I did well in interview, and held my own in talent against girls who couldn't sing, and baton twirlers who dropped batons right and left. I ended up with fourth runner up. The winner of that local pageant was Allison Alderson, who had won Miss Tennessee Teen USA and had placed in the top 6 there (if not top 3), and had a sister who was the reigning Miss DC USA (and had placed in the top 10 at Miss Tennessee numerous times). Allison went on to win Miss Tennessee AND Miss Tennessee USA, and is now married to one of the guys from Rascall Flatts. I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning, but in my first pageant, doing an awful lot of things wrong, I ended up getting fourth runner up. Very encouraging!

I decided that if I really wanted to go to Miss America, I needed to take this seriously. I started paying for walking lessons, which are much harder than you think. I naturally walk a little pigeon-toed, and I had to learn to walk with my feet pointing straight, one in front of the other. Suck in your stomach. Tuck in your butt. Stand up as straight as possible. Hold your hands just in the right way, so they look nice rather than awkward. My walking teacher also told me to get a new bathing suit. I got a one-piece this time that has a sheer panel over the stomach. I bought clear heels, which I could wear with swimsuit AND evening gown. I rented a blue spangled evening gown from a place about an hour and a half away.

At my next pageant five months later, I was feeling good. Then I flubbed my talent. One of my problems with talent is that I hate playing the piano in front of other people. Hate it. Ever since I screwed up at a recital in the sixth grade, I have had performance anxiety. Well, I did it again. Had to totally start over. I didn't place. Everyone was shocked- they thought I had it in the bag. Well, these things happen, and I had another pageant the next week. I won. It was great. Some girls compete in dozens of pageants and never even place, or keep placing but never win one. Maybe their talent is bad. Maybe their talent is bad plus their interview is bad. Maybe their interview is good, but their talent is bad and they need to drop a bunch of weight. In the Miss America system, if you have bad talent and bad interview, you will never win. If you have one of the two (and as long as your talent is mediocre and not truly awful, but this isn't that hard to do), you can win a local, although you may have to be lucky enough to enter a local that isn't that competitive.

The thing about winning a pageant, even if it wasn't for your beauty per se, is that you then have been officially certified as "beautiful." After all, you won a pageant, right? I went back to college in the fall, and instantly found that people treated me differently. This wasn't all bad. My close friends were more or less the same, but the guys.... oh, the guys. You have to understand that my guy friends were not the kind of guys who ever imagined that they would be on speaking terms with a beauty queen. And oh my gosh, I was their FRIEND. They loved it. They ate it up. I was mostly amused by the fact that all of a sudden, these guys thought I was attractive. Not necessarily in a "we want to date you" kind of way (well, not for all of them- it did get me some attention from guys who hadn't previously paid any attention to me), but in a "Hell yeah! You are hot! And you talk to us!" kind of way. The girls (the ones who weren't close friends) were more scornful about it, in a "What an unfeminist thing to do, enter a beauty pageant! You must be dumber and more superficial than we thought!" kind of way.

But the thing about Miss America, and the reason it will have my lifetime allegiance, is that it was the first place, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the first place where I felt appreciated for being both intelligent and attractive, but I was not forced to choose between one or the other, and in fact, was a stronger and more formidable competitor because I was both. I did not even have this in my own family, which felt the need to promote harmony by dividing up the labels between my sister and me. What is more feminist than saying that women can do it all? Isn't this the argument that feminists have been trying to make for years?

Miss America is the true renaissance woman. She is expected to be attractive (you don't have to be the prettiest to win- not by a long shot- but let's face it. As Suzanne Sugarbaker once said, "It's not a beauty pageant, but it ain't an ugly pageant either."), to be intelligent and well-informed, to have some kind of proficiency in the performing arts, to care about her community and the world around her. To me, this is the most modern thing of all, not to hold women to impossible standards but to say "Yes, we can do all this. Don't put us in a box."