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.