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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Wednesday
Nov092011

« In Which We Are Vaguely Offensive And Obviously Out Of Place »

Substantially Late
to the Party

by JOANNA SWAN

Certain habits of a socially dubious nature are sometimes afforded an aura of Cool when rephrased in an affectedly casual way: thrift store shopping, honky-tonk music, smoking, driving a 1994 Honda Civic, fermenting kombucha.

Most everyone has some such a point of pride, a secret weapon of underdog prestige, of being hip-to-it before "it" was "It." One could count even nominal victories  throughout my junior year of college, for example, I derived inordinate satisfaction from knowing (and sometimes sharing) that I liked certain bands before they genre-jumped from "New Weird America" to a more coherent "Indie Rock" and concurrent commercials for such consumables as Crayola and Outback Steakhouse. Never have I succeeded at reconciling my career as a Girl Scout in such a way. In an inverse relationship to knowing obscure bands before they reach stardom, my Girl Scout membership began before girlhood was quite finished, yet well after it was simply cute.

Even then, at ninth grade maturity level and the height of my love affair with gaudy eye makeup, I don't think I ever really wanted to be part and parcel of what I saw as a more tame, homogeneous and charitable form of the Spice Girls. In my enfance, while neighborhood colleagues were building a Mattel world of pink plastic and bubblegum-scented nail polish, enjoying femininity in its preliminaries: I was tossing Jasmine Barbie in the air until her head popped off somewhere in the Murphy’s ornamental pear tree. My Aryan doll of similar branding received numerous haircuts brutalizing her blonde locks and, more positively, providing nesting material for the backyard finch population.

I played by myself in such a manner, and when I desired sociability I found it independently — in Jack, the circumspect older-kid-neighbor who had a tiny dog and boasted to the 1st-graders about his mythological stacks of homework. Or I basked in the Harrison brothers' decadence: their Nintendo 64 and kid-sized, battery-powered Army Jeep and mother's Chicken Pot Pies and unending Otter Pops supply. Later, I participated in requisite soccer seasons and City of Davis Junior Basketball practices, performing mediocrely and mainly enjoying the shenanigans that ensued when paired with similarly un-invested girl friends.

Emerging thus into an antebellic period of home life post-middle school crises of conscience and friend-crowd, I settled into a complacent year of Wuthering Heights, sines cosines tangents, and short boyfriends. Fifteen years old and ready to leave ninth grade one month in, I skipped tardy and shameless into Girl Scouts, as if the organization were but a transparent caprice.

Of course, I could have joined earlier. Scouting runs rampant in the northern California area, and autumnal Cookie Seasons of my girlhood saw me reconciling my vigorous sweet tooth with a vague jealousy directed at the young verdant saleswoman accepting similarly green currency from my grandmother. Samoa envy notwithstanding, I never found the impetus to Scout-ify, whether for social reasons (too goody-goody, an innate distaste for uniforms cultivated by years in the public school system) or otherwise. Incidentally, there was no bridging from Pantone color 541 to 334C (that recognizable green hue), no chance at phenomenal cookie sales by virtue of endearing Scoutness, no impressive compendium of embroidered emblems, no pledge and certainly no pride. I told anyone who stumbled upon the fact of my membership that "I joined so I could go to San Francisco for free."

That same San Francisco explanation befittingly illustrates my Girl Scout career. Most of the troop slept in regulation Girl Scout cabins on Girl Scout terrain somewhere near Golden Gate Park. My ladies-in-arms and I crept out into the Bay Area’s witching hour and watched in fascination or terror or disbelief as dozens of muffler-less vehicles cruised and revved outside the chain-link fence, racing for hours until sirens forced hasty egress.

For my fifteen-years, this spectacle was more valuable than any Fort or Bridge or understanding of Ethiopian cuisine; I was enamored with 1977, Pink Floyd's "The Wall," and the idea of doing illegal drugs — the latter of which remained by and large a bibliographic pursuit involving trips to the Yolo County Library and such surreptitiously-read titles as LSD: Doorway to the Numinous, The Drug Library's Hallucinogens, and Psychedelic Shamanism enjoyed on the hills overlooking the Blue Devils soccer fields.

Not that I was delinquent — one fellow member and host of our 2006 Secret Santa Gift Exchange was obliged to join as a result of her DUI. Another used pharmaceuticals. Several others’ sordid sexual conversations furnished entertaining weekly meetings for a girl who practiced piano on either the Steinway or the Mason & Hamlin for at least forty minutes a day (though ideally two hours); worked silently on Algebra II/Trig while AIMing an erstwhile boyfriend, absconded with a carton of ice cream and returned it to the freezer, half-empty; and fed herself the untenable truth that a thirst for company and camaraderie is quenched with dreams of Edward Scissorhands, self-reliance and snacks.

There were always more established and well-patched Scouts focused staunchly on high school courseloads and how the GS Gold Award might look on admissions applications down the road; I wore black hoodies from Mervyn's, knitted knobby scarves throughout meetings and forgot whether to knit or purl, and joked with Marie or Noelle about older boys we'd never date. I often felt in Girl Scouts meetings like the skinny little girl with bare, asphalt-stained feet in the company of my Barbie'd cohort; vaguely offensive, obviously out-of-place, an incongruous Puck in a sea of serious young Athenians.

It was easy to play the Fool when faced with resuscitating plastic babies for CPR certification, but decidedly more difficult when we Scouted north and south. I took community service as seriously as a teenager with little-to-no experience in anything less than lower-middle-class can. There was Habitat for Humanity in Oxnard, though all I remember are strawberry fields and working vigorously in a vain attempt to negate the caloric result of gorging on peanut M&Ms. In Davis, we planted a memorial tree for a girl I never met, a Girl Scout member and cancer victim. And how the PBS fund drive organizers must have perceived us as we traipsed into their Sacramento offices! All too-tight jeans, awkward glances, uncontrollable fits of giggling peppering our hours at the phone bank.

Did we offer any valuable service markedly more skillfully than a ragtag group of desperado pubescents? Why Girl Scouts? More a mercenary sent to infiltrate the unit and in the meanwhile strike up some friendships, I enjoyed the meetings, the home-baked brownies that Girl Scout Moms make (my mother, not a Girl Scout Mom, preferred instead to share in the spoils of what snacks I returned home with), the capaciousness of conversation. As if in this system of social gathering — organized by and populated with other women — I had more permission to express what is perhaps the decadence of being teenaged — that awkward, unbridled ridiculousness, outlandishness, sometimes-rude, energetic freedom.

Misguided or no, I felt that Girl Scouts affirmed this freedom. That is to say that if acting like a doofus is ever acceptable, it seemed especially so in the comfort of the Scouting environment. I sought out Girl Scouts to cure teenage malaise. Perhaps it didn’t empower me any more than did running barefoot behind shrubbery or climbing roofs or realizing that I could beat any boy at Mario Kart 64.

I stuck it out through high school and graduated as a Senior Girl Scout patch-less and Award-less, with an acquired taste for out-of-box brownies and pasta parties. Upon graduation I also received a CD of photos spanning 1st through 12th grades, of which I am in approximately 12. Of course I judged each of these dozen with my "cool/uncool"-binaried eye; of course, I am the disparate element, a Plain Jane among the Blanche Ingrams of Girl Scouts. But perhaps such disparity lies not with the Joanna in the photo, but with the group as a whole. A messy essence of awkward, uncool, diffident teenagers with too much makeup on bound together sometimes with a pledge, sometimes a patch, sometimes a Girl Scout Promise though, in my case, left unmemorized — and sometimes simply the mutual permission to be weird.

Joanna Swan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the saxophone.You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She blogs here and tumbls here.

"Silver Bells" - She & Him (mp3)

"Baby It's Cold Outside" - She & Him (mp3)

"Sleigh Ride" - She & Him (mp3)

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