Saturday, December 28, 2013

I should be writing a holiday letter.

I should be writing a holiday letter.

But – would you just take a look outside for a moment? The sun has broken through the clouds and is streaming in the front room window. The three inches of fresh snow we got overnight has brightened up the whole world, and now the settling flakes are sparkling diamonds as they drift off the trees. I actually remembered to fill the birdfeeders yesterday  (and am now just remembering to add sunflower seed to my shopping list) – consider it my Christmas gift to the wildlife – so now the feeders hanging just inches away from the picture window are being swarmed by a flock of chickadees and finches quibbling over who gets the next go.

Oops, now the teakettle is screaming for me to make some hot chocolate. With a candy cane dunked in, of course. And the loaves of Hawaiian bread that has been rising in the warming drawer are now ready for the oven. Does anybody even remember how or why Grandma Jean started the tradition of Hawaiian bread and ham for Brewster Christmas? Who around here eats something as exotic as Hawaiian bread, anyway?

I’d sit down at the piano and plunk out a few holiday carols for you, but the dry winter has suddenly wreaked havoc with the tuning and even I can’t fight my way through that. Probably just as well – hasn’t been much time for practicing piano, what with the hours I spend at work or torturing my French horn and alto recorder at various rehearsals/church services. At least here I can blame all the wrong notes on badly tuned strings, right?

The hush of the snow and the frenetic energy of the birds only make me more grateful for the blessing of a day to just sit still and watch. It hasn’t been a year for much stillness or watching, and it always seems that a little doing always leads to more that must be done. I’m closing in on my second full year as department head and four years working for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension office in Oneida County. It’s a small thing in the bigger scope of the world – a tiny department within a tiny county in a tiny part of rural America – but it is a huge blessing to have challenging, engaging work that so resembles the mission and passion of the Peace Corps and other international work right here, so close that I can live at home (and afford to live here). This year we added a third new educator to our staff, after hiring the second educator at the end of 2012 – it has been an incredible joy to watch them each grow in their roles working with youth and community/economic development respectively as I continue focusing my work with families. I’m looking forward to 2014 as we begin to bring our common threads together in community education work that demonstrates the connections between all of these areas and how necessary they are to creating strong communities as a whole.

I could go on for hours about the challenges rural America faces. The demographics here speak it loud and clear - young people are leaving in droves, seeking education economic, and social opportunities in places that offer more diverse, and some would argue, attractive possibilities. I’d certainly be lying if I claimed I hadn’t felt the pull. After all, I think I have about as much right to miss Vietnamese, Indian and a multitude of other ethnic food, and the excitement and adventure of new places and new people as much as anybody.

But then – would you look at that! The light has changed again. Funny how the clouds have shifted and everything is suddenly backlit.  The birds are suddenly gone for a moment and everything is silent again. Just take a breath of that fresh, clean air. They’ve made a fortune in bottling our clean water. It’s a wonder (and a relief) they haven’t figured out how to bottle and sell our air.

Well, if I were going to write a proper holiday letter, then I suppose I would be obliged (and thrilled!) to tell you about the major event of the year – 2013, the year I became a homeowner. But not just any old home; and not just the home that has this extraordinary southern exposure that soaks up the 8 hours of daylight all winter long and makes the Christmas cactus bloom on time (no thanks to me, who routinely forgets to water the poor thing). No, this home, the house my grandfather built after returning from a POW camp in Germany after WWII, is now the “Home Place.” I am humbled by the opportunity to place another generation’s roots in this house and to celebrate our history here in this small corner of the universe. And so, now with a new roof and a new couch in addition to the new stove (and the return of the refrigerator), I am slowly making more plans for making the Home Place my own home for as long as I work to be part of the solution of rural brain drain.

And, no holiday letter would be complete without a few photographs (which probably is all you’ll really pay attention to, anyway), and of course, my love for you and yours, and my hope for a very blessed new year in 2014. It saddens me to think of how many are struggling this year and will be into next: Jean, Terri, Chris, Nadean, Roger, Linda, Cindy, Nancy, and so many others struggling with diagnoses and life changes. But I’m also happy to celebrate numerous new beginnings all around me as well.

May all be well with you and those you hold close. May a year from now, on the precipice of 2015, find you with new, exciting stories to tell and great wisdom to share.

In peace.
Yes, I really do travel just to eat food. Thank you, Rebekah, for stuffing me silly!

Overlooking Bryce Canyon at the end of a Seattle - Olympic Peninsula - St. George, Utah vacation in February.
Breaking out the Vietnamese dress, "ao dai" to celebrate my cousin Mark's wedding to Becky Nguyen in Beverly Hills.

It was an absolute pleasure take my parents on a tour of California (Pacific Coast Highway to the redwoods to San Francisco) following the wedding in L.A.
The Brewster "Home Place," now in my name.

The daily slog: “digital” was the word of the year at work. So was “office space” – or, lack thereof.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Boomerang

It is 8 1/2 years since the debut of this blog (nearly 11 years since the first of my handwritten missives made its way back over the ocean), and this week marks a full five years since I returned to the states and to my hometown and birthplace.

Five years ago I was scared to death because, as I told my friends in Thailand, I was sure if I went back home, I would never leave.

And from the looks of my passport visa stamp pages and my accumulated frequent flyer miles, I was right.

It was also very nearly the end of my blog because, really, what did I have left to write for? Or who to write for?


Then, a few weeks ago, during a discussion about the persistent, painful, and seemingly permanent out-migration of young, working-age adults, a colleague described me as a "boomerang," a young person who went away, studied, worked, traveled, explored, then, while still in productive working prime, brought those skills and experiences back to the place he or she knew best - country home. The best case scenario, as he saw it, for rural America.

The term "boomerang" grabbed my attention and refocused my thinking. And maybe gave me a reason to revive the long-neglected blog. But, first, why "boomerang?"

The book, "Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America," describes what happens to youth in modern-day rural America: the Achievers, who do well in school and are encouraged go get education and to pursue their fortunes elsewhere, the Seekers, who are only average, but are determined to break away from their small-town roots and often use the military or other means as a "way out," and the Stayers, who settle in to a long-term local life. (Interestingly, the book describes Stayers as overwhelmingly male.)

This is hardly surprising news to anybody who has lived in a remote or rural area, and Census data will prove that population numbers drop off a cliff after age 18 for many places. And some places never recover from the cliff drop.

But then there are those that come back. This same book refers to two types of Returners made of the former Achievers and former Seekers. Achievers who have gone and gotten degrees, established careers, and otherwise proven themselves return at High-Flyers, Seekers who return after exploring the outside world are called Boomerangs.

So, I'm not exactly a Boomerang, since I definitely fit into the Achievers category back in the day. But High-Flyer doesn't say "come back home" to me. But, "Returner" doesn't capture my imagination, and I got chided by a member of the clergy when I described myself as a "Prodigal" since I didn't exactly come back in complete ruins, even if I was welcomed into the safety my parents' basement after my return. I don't really feel like a "Homing Pigeon" either. And I strongly believe that I would have needed to scratch the itch to see the world, regardless of academic skill or outside encouragement.

I always do better reflecting when I can identify myself as an outside observer. Boomerang status justifies the feeling I've always had of being an insider and an outsider. So, I am rebranding my blog and myself as a High-Flying Boomerang.

Sunday, December 01, 2013


For a while, Morning Edition on NPR was running stories about people's commutes during, well, my commute. And each one of these stories reminded me exactly why I both hate and love my commute. In truth, I hate my commute. It's long, tedious, wastes a lot of fuel and robs me of exercise, takes me a long ways from home, and chews up precious time in my day.

I only "love" it in direct comparison to other people's commutes: no sitting in traffic for long hours while attempting to go half the distance I regularly travel, or being packed into a cattle car with other disgruntled steers. Granted, I wouldn't mind riding a train or subway, but I do appreciate having my own space and ability to haul as much crap with me as I want on a given day. So, in that respect, 40 minutes and 25 miles of mostly 55+ MPH on a relatively scenic open road and only a few annoying stop lights isn't that much to complain about.

And still, there is one odd little feature on this commute that stands out for me. I don't pass it every day, as I actually have a choice between two routes. One is slightly shorter, but usually heavier with traffic and school buses. This feature is on the slightly longer route that is generally less trafficked and with school buses heading in the opposite direction, so I do travel it most days during the school year. A little less than halfway through the route, I turn off the state highway and onto a county road. Less than a half mile after the turn is a tiny little water hole and a sign post announcing, "Little Duffy Lake."

This Little Duffy Lake is so tiny that it's likely the average traveler has never even seen it. I have no idea how many times I'd gone by before even noticing it was there. But every since I saw it for the first time, this little pond has become an unwelcome totem that portends the nature of my day ahead.

Usually the fates are better for me on days when I slip by that little piece of road without seeing the lake there. Those are the days when I suddenly glance over at a little field further on and wonder what happened to that little lake, or how I missed it. Those days fly by effortlessly and full of action and, often, productivity. On days when I do notice the lake, I know that my day ahead is going to be long and full of time for seeing details - boredom, even. If I see the lake, chances are, I'll be seeing the lake all day long.

And so, as I resume my commute tomorrow after the long holiday weekend, chances are I will be on the lookout for Little Duffy, in all it's now-frozen-over glory. And I hope I appreciate the glimpse, not because I want my day to be long and tedious, but because I should be thankful for the reminder that each moment of the day and each glimpse of a friend is something to be anticipated and savored, not just endured.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Even Though I Live Alone, I'm Going to Make this House My Home

Two posts in two days after not having two posts to rub together for months. But good reason.

Today I entered into the sacred realm of fulfilling the American Dream of saddling myself with years of debt and responsibilities for maintenance, repairs and lawn care.

Today I became the next generation caretaker of a piece of the land homesteaded by my great-grandparents and the house built by my grandfather and where he and my grandmother raised my father and his three siblings. And did this by signing the transfer of deed with my father and uncles in the building that used to be the church my grandmother attended.

Today I bought a house and don't have to pack a single box of my own things.

Today I can officially call the house I have been living in for four years my home.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Look Back at My First Niverenan'ny Fahaleovantenan'i Madagasikara, One Decade Later

Ten years ago I celebrated my first Malagasy Independence Day. I had been in Madagascar for just over three months, and alone at my remote Peace Corps site for 54 days. I was recovering from a nasty bought of something that was never confirmed to be malaria, and was still completely overwhelmed with culture shock, language barriers, and the inability to cook anything fit for human consumption.

On Monday I "rediscovered" my handwritten journal that I painstakingly kept in painful detail for just over my first year at my site. I opened it at random to June 23, 2003, and realized what I was reading was almost exactly 10 years old. I had to laugh at my 10-year-younger self, mostly with relief that I will never have to go through an experience like that again - at least wherever I go now, I know I will be able to cook an edible meal out of raw ingredients, and I will never be quite as freaked out about going to the market to buy food.

So, in honor of both the 26th of June, and my 10 year anniversary of experiencing my first one, here is the unabridged, unedited account I wrote of that first celebration in Bealanana, Madagascar, beginning the day before and going through the day of [with just a few editorial clarifications and comments]:

June 25, 2003

Well, once again I am starting this mid-day since I 'm guessing it's going to be a long night tonight. So far the day has been pretty good. I didn't sleep too badly, despite a constant stream of arrivals [at the emergency room at the hospital I lived in] next door. Then I was up at 6 (my radio has stopped working in stand-by mode, and this bothers me so much I wake up when it's supposed to turn on) and started heating milk. I had a hard time choosing clothes, but finally settled in and opened up just in time for Madame Lala to come looking for me. She said I had to come see the games again today.

Then I drank hot chocolate, ate break, left a pitcher for milk, and headed off early to the hospital [the lower hospital, more of a "clinic," not the upper hospital I lived in]. I made some progress [on my record-keeping project] before the rasazy [nurse] showed up. A whole bunch of women came for Depo[-Provera shots], but only three or four for CPN [prenatal check-up]. I helped fill out cards.

Then I went to the bazaar. I stopped to look at jeans and finally found a (new) pair I liked, and chatted with the shopkeeper. He's from Montasoa [village where Peace Corps has it's training center, two days by airplane, a week by car away]. I bargained for the jeans - 60,000 FMG for a new pair. Yea, the cut is several years old, but still a new pair for 9.50 USD. Not bad, even if I did get ripped off by Malagasy standards.

Then I wandered the bazaar for a long time and finally picked up some hair-fixin' supplies. The back home. I picked up my mlk and hung out with the nurses who were waiting for the Sous-Préfet who never showed. Then I made lunch and was still feeling energetic. So I cleaned up, hauled water and tried on the jeans and clothing combos for tonight.

But I am still feeling nervous about tonight. I know Mosilee (the bush taxi driver) and many other drunk men will be there, and I can't help but it scares me. A lot. I'm really looking forward to this time tomorrow.

Well, I'm glad I already started writing, because I'm just back from the first part of the celebration and already have a lot to report. The evening started with more "games," like yesterday. Madame Lala had told me to come early and she got me a seat up top of the stage with her and the other judges, so I had a good view, even if I did feel a little awkward. The dancing was fun [to watch], even if sitting with Lala always manages to raise my blood pressure a few notches. But it also gave me the idea that maybe I should do a "game" instead of village theater for my pregnancy education project. [Never did happen.]

Anyway, the last was a Betsileo [southern Madagascar ethnic] tribute that got all of the displaced Betsileos very excited, and then I escaped to join Vero and Fonja. We stayed to watch the kid's question contest - and learned that Belanana has only had electricity since 1997 or so - I really wonder just how the town has changed in that time.

Then the kids started lighting their Chinese lanterns and the effect was really awe-inspiring. The whole square was soon filled with bobbing balls of colored light - reminding me a little of Halloween at home without the costumes. The weather reminded me of that season, too - not hot like our Independence Day, but remarkably cool. [Remember, June is winter in Madagascar.] I was actually a little worried about the kids who were definitely not dressed warm enough and soon were shivering. But I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the walk home with cold, hungry kids.

But I also had a reminder of what's to come with a drunk guy in the square who insisted on trying to speak French to me. I kept replying in English and he kept trying to rub my hand in that Malagasy way [that indicated he wanted to have sex]. Overall, I was just amused by the incident, but a whole night of it might get a little taxing again. But I'm going to drug myself up on Ibuprofen and try to get through it.

So Lala stopped by to reconfirm the program and we chatted and now I'm going to eat and get warm and go with a smile on my face.

Actually, the evening turned out pretty well. There were surprisingly few people there - I had assumed this was the event of the holiday. But we headed there at 10 to give things a chance to get going on Malagasy time - but even so, the place was all but empty when we got there. Lala had arranged a great table in the corner where I could be protected from drunks by the other ladies. I am really touched how they go to so many lengths to defend me. But tonight I was really surprised to find only Lala and Mama'i Miso as my company. I assumed more would join us later on, but as the clock crept closer to midnight I realized we were it. Mama'i Miso sat and shivered and I sipped a Coke, waiting until finally, at 11:30, they started dancing.

But even then there weren't enough men for me to have a partner for the first several dances. I finally figured that I had turned down at least half of the guys in town, and they had probably told another quarter, so none of them came. I did get accosted by one drunk lycée [high school] student and several terrible dancers, but for the most part I enjoyed myself.

I also swore I was going to stay until Lala was ready to go - like it or not. I drank a lot of Coke and then somebody produced rum, so I had a couple really good rum and Cokes and then the Sous-Préfet bought me an orange soda, so I had to chug a large part of that, too. My teeth hurt after that. And as the evening wore into morning, Mama'i Miso and Lala's husband got drunk enough to make a scene in a room full of obscenely drunk people.

So Lala and I started coercing them into going home. That took a lot of cajoling and time. It was after 3:30 AM when we finally left, and it took a bit to get home. As we were walking Mama'i Miso to her house she spent about 10 minutes puking up everything she'd looked at for the last 24 hours. Amazingly she really sobered up after that.

And I got home and cleaned up and was in bed at 10 minutes after 4 AM.

June 26, 2003

Happy Malagasy Independence Day!

So at 7 AM I literally dragged myself out of bed when all I wanted was to stay there. But I got myself slowly moving and dressed and ready to have a cultural experience. I also made hot chocolate to take to Vero's [my new Malagasy best friend] for lunch.

A little before 9 AM I followed the crowds of school children to the town's center square. The bazaar was already busy and there were crowds in the center. I found Mama Kafé [Vero's mother, so called because she and her daughter ran a little coffee shop, and there is no letter "c" in the Malagasy alphabet] and went to chat with her and soon found I was being ushered onto a seat on the raised platform with all the other VIPs. I was a little cowed at first, but I took a rickety chair way in back and I really did want to see what was going to happen and figured this was the only way I might get to see. And I was grateful for the shade and the seat because it did turn out to be a long wait.

They say time waits for no man, but if you're a Malagasy Sous-Préfet, you don't let that bother you, apparently. Just as a 9 PM ball doesn't get started until 11:30 PM, a ceremonial occasion scheduled for 9 AM can't start until HE arrives, even if that means 10:30 or 11 AM. Or, probably, 3 PM. All I know is, short of the president of the U.S., very few officials could expect that kind of patience and respect back home.

So we sat. And I tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. It really wasn't easy. I was worn out. But finally the real VIPs showed and we could get underway.

Now, since the square was surrounded in regiments of school children from all the area schools, organizations, and the women's groups that had danced the two days before were back in costume, I assumed there would be some "playing" going on. So when the VIPs arrived, I sort of half-slept through the speeches. I did wake up when I heard something interesting - they're supposed to start building a new bazaar in July, a new doctor (maybe two) are coming, something about a new English teacher arriving from America in 2004 - I don't know if he meant the new PCV, and something about new money to replace the awful, "mora simba" [easily broken/ripped/mutilated] Aryary Zato and Roan-zato [denominations of Malagasy money]. We'll see.

[For the record: there was a new bazaar built, but typical to many things, it wasn't until probably a year later that ground was finally broken; we did get a new doctor, the English teacher he was referring to must've been the new Peace Corps volunteer who came well before 2004, the only thing to happen early or on time; and there was new money in the making that made its appearance to much fanfare a few months later.]

I was fairly impressed with how my language skills have improved - I really did understand a fair amount. Though it would've been nice to have somebody ask, "Did you really hear/understand that?"

Then, suddenly, everybody marched out of the square. There was a little parade, military style, with all the groups marching for "inspection" in front of the platform. Now, I'm not sure what, but something still rubs me the wrong way about overly military-style celebrations. Maybe it's my fear of the Chinese communism we read about in Wild Swans, or the like, and it's probably no big deal since I'm sure when America was a young republic (in fact, I know) the celebrations were very similar, but I really would like to see more non-political, non-military independent fun.

[Ironic that four years later I would land myself in Communist Vietnam?]

But, that's what the bazaar was for. It was absolutely brimming with people by the time the pomp and circumstance ended. I meandered around for a bit, taking it all in, and getting "bonjour-ed" more in those 15 minutes than I have for months.

Finally I gave it up and headed up the hill. I ran into Zo [Vero's younger sister], and we chatted and walked and I began to feel jut how tired I really was and how my ears had been damaged by the disco [the night before]. And how tired I really was. [I guess I was tired, for all I keep repeating myself.] I briefly stopped at home, thanked myself for having the forethought to already make the hot chocolate. I quick changed, and we were off to Vero's. Unfortunately I managed to forget my camera, so I had to run back home - but was back before they were ready to start.

Very announced lunch and we all filed in. The table was beautiful - and since Mama Kafé was off at the VIP lunch, I was named "lehibe" and put at the head of the table. I think I remembered most of my Malagasy manners. The food was great: composé, duck, ruce, cake for dessert. And think the company was much more enjoyable than up at the Supra-Feit's where they'd all be off drinking again.

After lunch Very shooed the kids and when Fonza arrived we went mitsangasanga-ing. We went to Bealanana I, down airport road, back to Bealanana II, got "bonjour-ed" by more durnk people - had to tell several of them I spoke Spanish and no, they couldn't take a picture with me, and by the time we got home around 6, I was really tired.

I was also chilled and dressed in warm clothes - and decided I was too tired to do anything short of go straight to sleep. I was afraid Madame Lala or the others would come looking for me to go to the ball at La Crete, but if they did I didn't hear them because I was asleep by 7 PM and didn't roll over until 2 AM and still didn't want to get up in the morning.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I'll have more of this, please.


Despite the biting cold (and thumbing my frozen nose at my heat bill), I left the thermal curtains of my window open last night so I could enjoy the waning New Year's moon...and woke this morning to my eastern view of the sun rising clear and gold over the trees. A recent fresh dusting of snow, a clear, cold day, a house full of east-and-southern exposure window - and nowhere to go. Books to read, music to listen to and instruments to be played, hot chocolate, a blanket, and the audacity to do nothing more than play the cat and follow the sunny spots on the carpet and chairs.

If this could possibly be what 2013 is going to be about, I will take more of it. A double order, please.