The Beauty Contest

Update We’ll leave this on top for another day. No theories thus far are correct.

The sun was now a steady companion, only occasionally obscured by clouds. The snow was melting fast; hardly any remained. Green things, released from the stunting weight of ice, were emerging from the ground. Trees budded, animals scampered. It was finally Spring.

The change had its traditional effect on Howard, who announced to himself, “I shall organize a beauty contest to celebrate this wondrous turn of events.”

Howard decided he would be one of the judges, but he knew that more were needed. He called on one of his friends and pronounced him qualified to sit with him as an authority. The pair together sought out a third then a fourth, and then this group in turn reached out to complete the panel, each blessing the other with the powers of office.

The judges decided which elements of beauty would be considered. There were many. Stature, the way the contestant held herself, also known as poise. Intelligence, a neglected area, would not be forgotten. Attainment, what remarkable acts had the contestant achieved? Grace and the sureness of elegance. Talent of course. But also, since the judges were honest, raw physical attractiveness.

As the panel members were compiling the rules, word of the pageant was leaked. The excitement caused by furtive nature of the announcement attracted a great many entreaties by would-be entrants. But it also excited an even larger number of those who begged to be accepted as judges.

The judges first decided yea or nay on each contestant, often rejecting otherwise eligible applicants merely to reduce their number to something manageable. There were after all only so many judges and so much time in the day. The decision to disallow any further swelling of the ruling panel was easier: none new would be added unless a current judge left or was dismissed.

Finally it was Summer and the big day arrived when the judges were formally empaneled and event began. The contestants were first paraded in their best raiment. The judges made notes, rating each on a scale from worst to best. The next event was questioning, in which each contestant was posed a number of queries designed to elicit depth and range of knowledge. Answers were accorded points in relation to eloquence and correctness. Then came the talent portion of the evening, whereby each contestant demonstrated her contribution to what was best in life.

Topping the evening was the swimsuit competition. Each contestant wore as little as she thought she could get away with whilst obeying the rules of propriety she thought were held by the judges. Each walked and posed in the way that showed off her attributes to what she hoped was maximum effect.

Afterwards the theme song was sung, the contestants thanked for the efforts, and the curtain lowered. The emcee told the audience that the judges would retire to their chambers to decide upon the winner. We can only imagine the nervousness of the contestants as they sat backstage and waited.

The judges filed into their red room and began deliberations which would take many weeks. To reward their efforts, wine was served, and a sumptuous repast was laid before them. During the judging, there was some bickering about this or that quality, minor tiffs about why this element should be accorded greater weight than that, but these disagreements were minor and friendly, argued in the spirit of camaraderie.

It was apparent almost from the beginning that it was no contest. Many entrants had much to offer. This one was uniquely talented, that one gifted with an almost heavenly grace, more than a few sublimely beautiful. But only one possessed all traits in such abundance that many judges, merely thinking of her, wept openly.

The judges were about to write the name of this contestant on the official certificate when Howard spoke.

“Fellow judges,” he said, “While I cannot but agree that this contestant is of surpassing beauty, talent, intelligence, grace, and much more, I am afraid we have overlooked something. Examine if you will this photograph, taken at the time of the swimsuit competition. You will notice here, near the top, a flaw. It is a wart.”

Their astonishment was so great that their collective gasp was heard outside the judge’s room, causing new rumors to fly. Many agreed with Howard: “It is a wart—A flaw, yes—Something less than perfect—How could we have failed to notice such a hideous defect?”

Howard said, “I’m afraid she cannot be the winner. Indeed, I am inclined to place her last because our hope and support for her was so strong.”

All heads around the table nodded. Except one, which belonged to David, who now rose to speak. “Fellow judges, Howard is right, but only about the flaw. It is there and cannot be overlooked. But did you not see that each of the contestants had similar flaws? The contestant we had in mind for second place had several, spread all around her person, and each was at least as ugly as our winner’s lone aberration. We must accept that human perfection is not possible: it can only be approximated. We should therefore vote that the true winner take her rightful place.”

Howard erupted in fury. “My learned friend has said that the flaw we have all noticed, and which has sickened and so disheartened us, does not exist! There is only one answer to this scurrilous accusation!”

The one answer was to seize David by the collar, strip off his judge’s robe, and forcibly eject him from the room. This left the panel one member short, so the young man who poured the wine, who indeed had sought that office just to be near the magistrates, was co-opted as a judge. Anxious to get along and to not endanger his new and much coveted position, he acceded to the consensus view and voted to reject the apparent winner, an act which was rewarded by many pats on the back and remarks of “Good fellow!”

The judges then returned to the auditorium and handed the envelopes to the emcee, who in turn called the contestants on stage to hear their fates. Third place was revealed first, which garnered moderate applause. Second place came next, a choice with which the audience evidently agreed. Tension mounted. The emcee milked the moment, pretended to begin an anecdote, then upon hearing the groans of the audience tore open the last envelope and read off the name. Silence, confusion, wonderment.

The winner was that contestant many had thought would come in, if not last, then certainly in the bottom tier. The winner had her qualities, of course, she possessed a certain charm, but only if she was viewed while squinting would anybody say she was beautiful. Was this a mistake?

Howard sensed the mood and knew the audience did not understand. He mounted the stage and lectured those who had remained in their seats that his and the wisdom of his fellow judges could not be questioned. The audience was aghast. But Howard strode off, the curtain fell for the final time, and the pageant ended abruptly.

As he was leaving the theater, Howard bumped into the contestant who David had said should be the rightful winner. “Excuse me,” she said. Howard viewed these words as an affront and so he began to lecture the contestant about why she did not win. He talked at length about the flaw. He analyzed it in every particular detail. He said that the judges were already preparing a book which was to be a compendium about the sheer awfulness of the wart. He at first hinted, and then outright accused the contestant of mendacious and fraudulent behavior: how dare she enter a contest when she knowingly possessed a flaw! Her behavior was monstrous, atrocious, unforgivable.

The rebuke was long and devastating. It’s venom penetrated and struck the contestant with overwhelming force. She was more than dispirited or distraught, she was inconsolable in her grief, horrified by the consequences of her crime. She wandered into the night alone, sure that Howard had been right to say what he had said. She came to a fence blocking access to a river, climbed the fence and sat down on the other side. She undid her sash and tied it to the fence and then to her neck. She let herself slip into the river, tightening the noose which slowly strangled her.

Her death marked the first day of Fall.


  1. GoneWithTheWind

    I thought this was a story about our supreme court and federal courts which has surely screwed up their decisions many times in the last few decades. So does this mean Newt is right?

  2. Mike B

    Still trying to figure out how the contestants (and the audience) dealt with “weeks of deliberation”, running from summer to the first day of fall.

    I can’t figure out if this is a morality tale or a riddle.

  3. Mike B

    Commentary on the Republican Nominee field perhaps? Don’t recall T-Paw slipping into a river in September.

  4. You’re talking about my driving too fast in the neighborhood, aren’t you? Dern you Matt Briggs! Why don’t you mind your own business?

  5. Briggs


    Your guess is no more wrong than any others thus far.

    Mike B,

    Nice to see you!

  6. This is a story about the beginning of Howard the Duck’s career. And quite a beautiful story at that…

  7. Briggs


    Time for a hint (still obscure). Story inspired by my noticing what somebody was reading in the New York Times’s magazine.

  8. JH

    One thing is certain: Howard is a jerk.

  9. Briggs


    Be careful. You might come to regret that opinion, given your social position, etc.

  10. Mike B

    Didn’t Howard Stern write a book called “Beauty Queen” or something like that?

    Sorry to have been away so long. Been absorbed by other endeavors; mostly good family stuff. Realized I missed visiting and stopped by.

  11. Frank N Stein

    I think this is about Ron Paul and his 20 year old newsletter kerfuffle. Although to be a better analogy the other contestants should have been hideous trolls.

  12. Tom Bri

    The whole ‘City on a Hill’ thing, and liberals’ reactions to America’s little warts?

  13. John Lien

    I was thinking along the same lines as Tom. Maybe slavery is the wart. Still don’t know who Howard is or what ousting David is all about.

  14. Sera

    Howard Gardner?

  15. Gary Mount

    Maybe I have been studying Climate Science too long, but while reading this I kept seeing parallels with the progression of the state of the political climate science. But, while typing this I saw a better parallel with Bayesian versus frequentist statistics (or something like that).

  16. William Sears

    Howard Hughes comes to mind.

  17. Bill S

    I surrender.

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