I had all of the tools and none of the skill to light that fire. And I kept thinking, “Man, I am one lousy Girl Scout…”
Hi there. I’m Jean Synodinos, I live in Austin, TX, and welcome to the Big Scout Project, a modest adventure in lifelong learning.
We live in an age of heightened specialization. We know our niche, we know our place in the world. As we age, we typically live with increased focus on our families, our jobs, and if we’re lucky, one or two side interests for which we make time. We turn 50, and we start to make the lists of all the things we’ll do when we retire. We make our bucket lists. And we keep those lists for “someday,” because there’s no time now. We have to stay… focused.
Isn’ that silly?
The BSP is an argument for simple, incremental, regular learning and exploration. It’s an argument for generalization over specialization. The BSP sets out to make the case that we don’t need jump out of planes to get a decent thrill, that simple and regular learning — even on small scale — feels good, and that we don’t need to wait for our golden years to have a good deal more fun.
Let’s learn some stuff!
The Genesis of the Big Scout Project
The Universe Laughs At Our Plans: Oh, Boo Hoo Hoo
It was January 2010. I’d planned what was supposed to be a magical, sexy, romantic winter beach vacation for me and my husband Charles—a quiet, perfect getaway in the small town of Surfside, TX. Free of people, free of work’s demands, free of the internet, free of all worries and cares. Boy, I had that week all mapped out. And while I didn’t get the vacation I wanted, I sure got the one I needed.
But maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Make a plan and watch the Universe [or God] laugh.” As we headed off, Charles was clearly ill—let’s go ahead and call it the flu—and after two days, he said what any sane person would say. He said: “Given the choice, I’d rather feel lousy at home than here.”
I was angry at him for getting sick. Angry that he left. Angry that my plans had been trashed. I became a petulant, pouty bee-atch. I was left alone with just our dog, Freida, to keep me company in a lovely house on an empty island. Oh, boo hoo hoo.
But it turned out that solitude was just the ticket. While walking Freida on the beach that night, I saw a black sky so crowded with stars that it just knocked me over. It was so quiet, so big, so beautiful. And it had the lovely effect of hushing me up inside. And in that moment of clarity, I counted myself as one lucky soul.
An Idea Born From Ineptitude
Two days later, an Arctic cold front brought record-breaking temperatures to Texas. It hit the Gulf Coast and turned the world gray save for the whitecaps on the water. And that night, shortly after 7:00, it also brought a power outage to the island.
I don’t know about you, but I get really, really antsy when the power goes out. Can’t read, can’t watch TV, can’t “do” a whole lot of anything. I sat in the glow of a small flashlight for about 30 uncomfortable minutes until I got a really good idea: make a fire on the beach!
Yep, that was clearly the ticket – make a fire, sit next to it with Freida by my side, and just be all, you know, primitive and stuff. I had wood, I knew where to get kindling, and I had a lighter.
But I couldn’t get the damned thing lit. Not for nothing. Not for thirty minutes. And it just cracked me up. I had all of the tools and none of the skill to light that fire. And I kept thinking, “Man, I am one lousy Girl Scout…”
Even after the fire was finally blazing, the thought kept crossing my mind, “I should be a better scout. I should know scout stuff. I should be able to remember things I used to know. I should’ve learned more… stuff… by now.”
So in that moment, the Big Scout Project was conceived. And it was officially launched on my 50th birthday, October 26th, 2010.
The Project’s Metamorphisis from 2010 to 2013
I began working my way through the badges in the Jr. Girl Scout handbook—the one that girls were using in 2010 and for years before that. It was the perfect framework, too. All kinds of learning to be done in pretty much any darned area.
You had your cool science, math, visual and performing arts. You had you cooking, sewing, needlework. You had your sports, camping, and adventure stuff. And you had your badges in civics, history, business, and just how to be a good person out there in the world.
There were 100+ badges in that book, and 6 tasks required to earn a badge. That’s a lot to learn, and I knew it might take a chunk of time, but I was in no hurry.
In the first two years, I worked my way through 218 of those 600 or so badge tasks. Every few months, I’d submit my work (quite formally!) to my panel of Virtual Troop Leaders who either gave me a thumbs up or down.
And then the Girl Scouts of America up and changed the handbook. Radically.
I can’t tell you how much I was thrown off my mental game when the new handbook came out. I’d had a perfectly good framework, and the new handbook had far fewer badges in far fewer arenas of learning and practice. A different model for a scout’s journey altogether.
Of course, there was no reason I couldn’t stay with the old handbook. It’s not like I’m actually a Junior Girl Scout, right?
So I went back and re-read those 400 or so tasks left to do in the old handbook, and you know what I discovered? Most of them were pretty darned banal to a middle-aged woman. While entirely appropriate for a 12 year old girl, most of them weren’t going to really push me to learn new things.
This was a conundrum. While mentally muddling through a solution, my posts became less regular until they trickled to nothing by the spring of 2013.
And I put the project on a far back burner in order to focus on more pressing personal issues, like, oh… a divorce.
But this time away from the BSP helped me craft a new — and dare I say, more adult — framework for moving forward. Badges be damned, I just wanted to learn some stuff and share it.
The new and improved BSP applies the same principles of the original project–incremental lifelong learning across a wide spectrum of subjects–with a far more age-appropriate set of challenges.
The BSP relaunched with renewed vigor in late 2013. You can track the progress here.
Why Bother with the BSP?
It’s a solution for those of us who are starin’ that second half of the century in the face and wondering if we’ve done the best we can with what we have—or if we should maybe do a little better going forward.
It’s a vehicle for those of us who’ve become so specialized in our work and lives that we’ve forgotten to explore other ideas and disciplines—or we’ve put them to the side for want of time. It asks how we can re-learn how to live the “wider” life of a child, even in small ways, and explores how that wider life might be more satisfying.
It’s a tap on the shoulder to those of us who are say we are perfectly fine within the confines of our own comfort zones, thank you very much—even though there’s that little voice inside that says maybe even a little change would do us some good.
And finally, it’s be a reminder for all of us who just miss having the kind of fun we used to have – or should have had — when we were kids.
Follow the BSP
You can follow this sincere and goofy adventure in a whole lot of ways. Subscribe to the blog’s feed, and follow it on Facebook, on Twitter, on Flickr, and on YouTube. Share it with your friends and family. Or make it your own guilty pleasure. Post your comments, your ideas, your wisdom any time.
Big Scout & Chief Instigator
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