by Jennifer Anthony

I love lists. I love making them. I love checking them twice. But what I especially love is the joy of taking a big black marker and crossing each item off with a satisfying, inky squeak. So I was thrilled to discover a new book of lists entitled, You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls (Chronicle Books, 2005).

Author Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, a San Francisco resident and former Girl Scout, thought up the book idea to “recreate the feelings of accomplishment and community found in the Scouts.” After her death on United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, her sisters Vaughn Catuzzi Lohec and Dara Catuzzi Near brought the idea—an extensive list of activities to accomplish and thereby earn a “badge”—to fruition. Ms. Grandcolas’s mantra, adopted from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, had been “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” This book encapsulates that call to action.

As a former Brownie and second-generation Girl Scout, the badge idea struck an immediate and nostalgic chord with me. Ah, the Brownie days when I was little and thus could somehow manage to look cute in my monochromatic, UPS-brown uniform. And Girl Scouts, when things stepped up a bit, uniforms morphed from brown to green, and we had to do a little more than beam, inflict papier-mâché presents upon relatives, and sing joyous songs; we were supposed to be working diligently toward merit badges to sew upon a green sash and don with pride.

I had been an eager enough Girl Scout; I’d earned a few badges. But perhaps I’d been a little too easily distracted, judging by the amount of empty green space on my sash. When I told my mother about the book, she dug into her cedar chest and unearthed her own Girl Scout sash from San José troop number seventy-one—still in glorious condition after forty-nine years—and covered with patches. Now was my chance to earn those badges that eluded me when I was too busy hawking Thin Mints, playing Chinese Jump Rope, and trying to master that blasted Rubik’s Cube.

You Can Do It contains fifty-nine pre-assigned badges, and an additional blank badge, entitled “Dream On—Make Your Own Badge.” Badges are arranged by theme: Dare, Create, Learn, Play, Deal, Connect, and Dream. Each badge presents the reader with a female mentor, or expert in that particular field or topic; a list of steps; an offering of next steps, entitled “Beyond the Badge”; and a wealth of additional resources.

For those who might need more advice or, perhaps, nudging, mentors’ contact information is listed in an appendix. Also in the back of the book are several sticker sheets hosting the colorful badges. Readers are informed that they can paste the badges anywhere: “over the drawing on the first page of your activity, on your fridge, your bumper, your backpack, your briefcase, your bathroom mirror, in a special journal or frame—anywhere you see it and savor it with pride.”

The book vaguely reminded me of 101 Things to Do Before You Die, another recent purchase I made to satisfy the list-lover in me. This other book of to-dos by British author Richard Horne shares some suggested activities with You Can Do It (for example, skydiving, scuba diving, learn another language).

Some differences between the books point to the fact that You Can Do It is intended for women and seems to be targeted at the late twenties and up crowd. While Horne’s book contains youngish activities such as “Throw a House Party When Your Parents are Out” and “Stage Dive or Crowd Surf,” most of the suggestions in Grandcolas’s book are much more mature: “Redo a Room” and “Connect with Your Tribe: Family Rituals.” And with the exception of “Walking On Fire,” many of the activities in You Can Do It seem easier, less expensive, and usually safer than those found in 101 Things. For example, while Horne’s saucy book contains such items as “Join the Sixteen-Mile High Club,” “Storm Chase a Tornado,” and “Get Arrested,” Grandcolas’s book is more serious and includes suggestions like: “Paint a Picture,” “Commune with Nature,” and “Go Back to School.”

And yet, not all of the badges in You Can Do It are as simple as they might first appear. For example, why was it that my attention continually gravitated toward the Play, Learn and Create categories, somehow skipping over the Deal category time and time again? Perhaps because the Deal theme is not for young, green Scouts; it is the category that demands the most from the aged Brownie: maturity, responsibility, and inner strength. For it is the Deal category that includes such harrowing suggestions as “Manage Your Money,” “Care for Your Health,” and “Quit It (Break a Habit).” Walk on fire or manage my money? Yipes! Lead me to the coals.

But one can start off slowly, and that is what I did. The first activity, entitled, “Dare to Dream,” requires the gung-ho badgster to “jumpstart her dream machine” by considering such questions as “What have been the proudest moments in your life?” and “What did you daydream about as a kid?” I bought myself a special journal to accompany the book, set aside some alone time, lit a candle or two, and hunkered down to exercise my “atrophied dream muscles.” Two hours later, I was rejuvenated, excited, and ready to get cracking on another badge or two. Maybe even delve into that intimidating Deal category.

And I don’t necessarily have to go it alone, as one of the messages throughout the book, beyond inner strength and resolve, is to foster that sisterhood so central to the Scouts. As I flipped through the pages, I wondered who might join me on various adventures, and how much fun we would have. A week after I started reading the book, my cousin e-mailed me. Hey, she wrote, Turns out an old friend of yours works at my husband’s job. She told him you guys were in the same Brownie troop over twenty-five years ago. Okay if I give her your e-mail address? It may just be that my fellow badge-seekers will find me.

I do find myself thinking about that Girl Scout sash, and how proud I felt when I was wearing it. At thirty-five, a sash might certainly be a conversation starter, albeit one that goes something like, “Jen has finally lost it….” So while a sash might be inappropriate, I would have liked to see the book include some sort of poster to display my badges. Although I know the true satisfaction lies in knowing one has accomplished various activities, it seems a shame to stick the badges in a closed book, they’re a bit too small for a car bumper, and sticking them on the bathroom mirror or fridge might make me look like I have a Beautiful Mind. (I suppose I could fashion some sort of display on my own, and award myself a badge for my ingenuity.)

This book of lists should be on your list this holiday season—for yourself, or for a female you love. It is truly a gift to discover all that you have done or can do, alone and with others, to make your life a fabulous one. As Ms. Grandcolas would have told you, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” So get out there and earn yourself a badge, sister.

You can do it.

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Jennifer Anthony was once a Brownie and a Girl Scout, long long ago. Now she divides her time between working at a not-for-profit, volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and traveling every chance she gets. She wrote this review listening to Johnny Cash. Next badge: “Play a Tune.”