A Wonder of Women (or, Confessions of a Girl Scout Dropout)

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My latest adventure centered on spending 2 days with these delightful women. 

For most of my life, I considered myself to be an anti-social loner, not a team player, prefering to avoid group situations at all possible costs. My mother made me join the Brownies, which was mostly okay. We had snacks and did arts and crafts and sang silly songs. I could deal with that, and if I immersed myself in the arts and crafts I could avoid the other girls and more importantly, the troop leader. She scared the life out of me. Then came Girl Scouts. Uh oh. I was clearly not Girl Scout material. Girl Scouts are expected to interact in the world, earning badges for awesome deeds and selling overpriced cookies to people who really don’t need or want them. And go camping. Hell no. I don’t do camping.

me
If there was a badge in cat holding, I could’ve earned that one. And color coordinating outfits.

I pretended to go to Girl Scouts, showing up at the spot in front of the school where the car pool mom picked us up so as to be seen by the other girls. Then I’d go hide somewhere until the coast was clear, play on the school playground until it was time to go home, and then walk home, pretending when I got there that I’d had a great time. I didn’t get away with it for long. But my mother was understanding and let me leave the scouts. I was free! Free to spend my time with my books and my cats and my arts and crafts projects! Happy girl!

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I grew up. I was lonely, but still convinced I was not a people person. I sat at home alone a lot, drinking too much in front of Food Network shows.

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I needed a troup, a community, a network, I just didn’t know that’s what I needed. It was suggested that I needed to get out of the house and challenge myself. What?! But I tried. I signed up for cooking classes, mosaic making classes, knitting classes. But I didn’t make friends or try to fit in. It wasn’t because the women (yes, it was all women in these groups) didn’t try to befriend me. I resisted them, cultivating my misunderstood loner status.

But life has a way of kicking us in our butts when we need it. I needed it. I got my butt kicked. I got help. And I discovered that I am a nice person who thrives among friends and enjoys the company of others. Who knew?!

Call me a late bloomer if you will.

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It started with volunteering at an animal shelter, where I started to make friends and find a purpose in life. The animals were my bridge to connecting to people. Then I joined a book group. And had fun! I do things I would never have done 4 years ago, and they all involve other humans.

We have names for collectives of animals. A congregation of alligators, a battery of barracudas, an obstinancy of buffalo, a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, etc.

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We don’t have such creative names for groups of humans. Women in particular tend to reach out to other women for support and friendship. We need a name. I propose a wonder of women. I finally reached that point in my life where I have discovered that women who gather in groups don’t “cat fight” or backstab; okay, we might gossip a bit. But we help and support each other, offering good listening skills, advice if wanted, and understanding.

A study by Laura Klein and Shelley Taylor suggests that women are genetically hardwired to respond to stress by “seeking and befriending”. I most recently sought and befriended by attending the Ethelridge Road Knitting Salon, in upstate New York last week. What attracted me was the presence of one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend 2 days in her company. I can knit, but it’s been a while. I was willing to dust off my needles and relearn casting on and purling in order to meet Alice Hoffman.

with Alice
I got to meet Alice Hoffman!

I recently wrote about having read her book Faithful and how I connected to the main character Shelby. Shelby would have loved our dog mascot for the weekend, Millie.

I had an amazing experience in so many ways. First of all, it really was an adventure for me. I went so far out of my comfort zone (which is admittedly fairly small), renting a car and driving around upstate New York, staying by myself in a bed and breakfast. I felt so grown up.

me on arrival
All grown up and ready to join my life.

Was it worth it? Undoubtedly! Everyone was warm and welcoming, helpful and interested. We talked, we knitted, we listened to Alice read, we wrote, we ate well. Our hosts, including Millie, were welcoming and made us feel at home.

It was like Brownies, only better! Arts and crafts–check. Snacks–check. Scary troop leader–no way! And no camping!

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We all made amulets after listening to Alice read a lovely fairy tale, Amulet.
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Happily crafting away.

The only thing missing from my perspective–a cat.

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The B and B was just missing a cat. One would’ve made it perfect.

I’m home now, surrounded by cats, with new knitting projects, new friends to keep in touch with, and charmed memories. I plan to go again next year if all goes well.

My deepest thanks to everyone involved in making the experience so special. It means more to me than words can convey. And you didn’t make me sell cookies or camp!

Peace and hugs.

I see doppelgängers

Fictional characters aren’t meant to be role models. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and if they didn’t have some sort of Achilles heel, they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. At least for me, when I read a book, if I don’t empathisize with a character, I am not as drawn in. Except for books by Gillian Flynn. Those suck me in even though almost all of the characters are despicable!

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Gillian Flynn; behind this pretty face lurks a dark imagination.
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I read them all, each in about a day one after the other. No doppelgängers for me here!

 

Sometimes I get lucky and really identify with a character, feeling like I know them or am them. The first time I can remember this really hitting me deeply was reading Wind in the Willows as a child and imaging myself as Mole. Not the jaunty Ratty or crazed Toad or wise Badger, but the loyal and kind-natured Mole, who shyly longed for adventures and didn’t always make the best choices but always meant well.

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Then there was Harriet the Spy. Again, there were of course differences. I was no more a “tom boy” living in Manhattan with a nanny than I was a talking mole wearing a suit. But I was still her in my mind, clever (but not quite clever enough; things backfire) and misunderstood and nosy and I loved tomato sandwiches. I wouldn’t eat anything else for lunch during my Harriet phase.

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I read and read Daddy Long-Legs over so many times, I could recite long bits by heart when I was a teenager. I still feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about curling up in a chair with this book and losing myself in the letters Judy writes to her unknown guardian. She’s small and perky and sometimes unsure of herself. Her adventures in college were probably what inspired me to want to go to Mount Holyoke, which I didn’t get to do, but I had images of myself being a 1980s Judy Abbott there. By the way, don’t bother with the movie version. It bears no resemblence to the book. Do read the sequel, Dear Enemy.

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dear-enemy

I heard on an NPR story once that part of the appeal in fictional characters and seeing ourselves in them is that they can do the things we can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. Like spying on people (Harriet) or having lovely romances (Judy, who I lived vicariously through during my lonely teen years) or hating everything (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye) or saying smart-ass things to others or some of the horrible things Gillian Flynn’s characters do (just read the books).

I am going through this magical experience of losing myself in a character with Shelby Richmond, the central character in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. I am a big Alice Hoffman fan. Bingeing on her books got me through a dark and cold Massachussetts winter (long story, but I hightailed it back to California after that one winter).

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Alice Hoffman, one of my favorite authors.
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My current read. Can’t stop reading but don’t want it to end. What’s a girl to do?!

 

On the surface, Shelby and I don’t have a lot in common. She’s young and beautiful. I picture a Natalie Portman type in the lead role should it become a movie.

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Natalie Portman in Closer.
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Natalie Portman can also get away with the shaved head look; Shelby keeps her head shaved through the first half of the book.

 

I’ve never shaved my head or deliberately cut myself. Shelby is very dark and moody. Not quite Gillian Flynn dark and moody, but still dark and moody. She’s brutally honest and sometimes reckless. She loves New York City, having grown up in the suburbs on Long Island. I tend to smiles and hugs and although I’ve visited New York, I feel no need to spend a lot of time there. She mostly eats Chinese takeout; not my thing.

So, why do I see myself in her? Early on in the story, she thinks about how much she prefers sad songs that dwell on lost loves and lost lives. That’s me! Okay, not enough evidence. That’s lots of people.

I never contemplated suicide, but I spent a few years not really living, hiding in my darkened den and drinking too much while watching The Food Network. Shelby spends 2 years isolating herself in her parent’s basement, smoking weed and watching American Idol. And how does she begin to rescue herself? By rescuing animals. Bingo!

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Oddly enough, my first rescue dog’s name was Bingo.

 

She eventually volunteers at an animal shelter (see, what did I tell you?), knowing she needs to be with animals. She even applies to veterinary school, something I would be too scared to do but daydreamed about at some point (NPR may be on to something). She’s not a vegan, but I think Ms. Hoffman could’ve easily made Shelby a vegetarian, given her love for animals.

When people talk about doppelgängers, they usually mean a look-alike, an evil twin, or an almost ghostly apparition.

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But doppelgänger can also refer to a person who is behaviorally like another person. When Shelby, feeling vengeful and bitter, wishes bad luck to her former boyfriend and is glad when it snows on his April wedding day to someone else, it reminds me of me wishing bad things on people who I’ve felt wronged by.  Shelby loves animals and claims to hate people, but she takes soup to the homeless girl (who seems to be her doppelgänger) she often sees on the streets. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she is faithful to the ones she has. She learns to care for others and for herself. I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say how I will feel about the ending or what path Shelby takes. But I am on the path with her.

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Six Days in Seattle

After much agonizing over saving for a rainy day versus following my heart, I decided to go for it and head to Seattle and start a doctoral program. I am intimidated by the sound of it myself; I am starting on a PhD in Organizational Systems, emphasis Humane Education. I am not sure where my research will take me at this point, but I know I want to look at animal sheltering, animal welfare, animal agriculture and farm sanctuary among other possible topics. The program, through Saybrook University, requires all new students to attend a residential orientation conference for two days, followed by a residential program attended by all of the students, new and continuing. I am in Seattle for a total of 6 days at the lovely Cedarbrook Lodge. Today is Day 4, and we have a little free time (a little).

Of course, before I could leave Oakland, we had to say goodbye to foster kitten Abracadabra. She had gained enough weight to go back to the shelter for spaying and vaccinations to go out to the adoption center and find her new family. Good luck little Abby! It was hard to say goodbye.

Abby

I am an anxious traveler, and don’t travel alone that often, so this felt like I was going on a big adventure. I checked in at the Alaska Airlines counter in the International Terminal of San Francisco International Airport and had to go through the misery that is security screening with a very many international travelers even though my flight was domestic; it took quite a long time. But the International Terminal is quite nice otherwise. This mural is before you hit security. You might not love California quite as much afterward.

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There is quite a lot of art in the airport, from wall murals to changing exhibitions. Some of my favorite murals were Joyce Hsu’s Namoo House:

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Enrique Chagoya’s Love Letters:

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And Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Waiting:

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After a coffee (why does soy milk cost 75 cents more than regular at a coffee place?), I headed to my gate. Right across the aisle was a flight for Paris. Too bad the conference isn’t there! Seattle is a nice place, so I went to my correct line and didn’t try to sneak on the Paris flight.

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How civilized; there are charging stations at every seat on the Alaska Airlines flight. All planes should have these.

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On arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and, dare I say, pretty, the airport is. Even the bathroom is pleasing to the eye! And you can rate the cleanliness; it was “smiley face” clean.

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Everything was so well signed and accessible that I had my bag at baggage claim and was on the Cedarbrook shuttle in what seemed a matter of minutes. The lodge is remarkably close to the airport but it is anything but your traditional airport hotel. You feel like you are miles from everything!

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I decided to pay for the luxury and ease of dinner the the lodge’s Copperleaf Restaurant. I am not used to eating in restaurants alone, so I took a book (Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things), but I was too busy taking pictures and eating delicious food to get much reading done.

Cedarbrook dining Museum

I was intrigued by the table decorations; a frog riding a snail was the best. They sell them in the lodge’s gift shop. Might have to get one!

giddyup snail

The conference started bright and early the next morning. Signed in, got my agenda and name tag, and tried not to get any more anxious than I already was.

agenda student Day 1

It’s been a jam-packed few days but I have learned a lot, made a whole new group of friends, and been inspired to affirm that I made the right decision.  And 6 days at the lodge is not a bad thing! There is even a piano in the business center.

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Last night was the graduation ceremony for the 2015 graduates. It was very inspiring and I covet the velvet sash that I too will wear if I play my cards right (well, if I work hard).

graduates graduation graduation flowers

I am exhausted, overwhelmed, apprehensive, inspired, excited…but this is an amazing and supportive group of faculty and students and we are all on each others’ sides. I will be glad to head home on Tuesday evening, but I will also be sad to leave this amazing learning community to start doing the distance education work. That’s the plus side of social media–we can all keep in touch and keep our community going even thought we are spread around the country (and globe). Still smiling!

student Day 2