How New Zealand Has Changed Me

It’s my last morning in New Zealand.

As ready as I am to leave, I’m also scared of leaving.  Leaving worries me because I know that this time spent still like this has changed me in profound ways I have yet to understand.  I won’t have a way to quantify those changes until I depart New Zealand and spend some time away from it.

I’ve been officially removed from the rat race for so long I’m not sure I’ll understand anything anymore.  I wonder if I’ll have to readjust to a fast-paced world with a clenched jaw, just as I reluctantly adjusted to the slow island-time of life in New Zealand.  How has my time here changed me?  Has this experience prepared me for what’s next or will I be left ill-prepared?

I don’t know.

All I know is I’ve done things here in New Zealand that I would have never done elsewhere.  Like hiked a glorious peak ten times in the last twelve days.  Gone to bed religiously before nine o’clock.  Eaten in for every single meal for months on end, not even so much as buying a cup of coffee out.  (Eating out is expensive here and the service is so slow it’s rarely worth it.)

I’ve sat still more, and for longer.  I took a mindfulness course.  Picked grapes for six weeks.  Went white-water rafting and was flushed down the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall.  I’ve written on a daily basis.  That to me is the biggest miracle New Zealand has produced for me–giving me sufficient time, taking away the distractions of the world and just allowing for simplicity.  Living this forced simplistic life has compelled me to be more disciplined, more consistent.  Somewhere in these months I learned a hard-earned lesson about loyalty to myself and to my craft.

I hope I don’t forget it.

This is why I’m scared to leave New Zealand.  I’m afraid I’ll get distracted.  I’m fearful that I’ll lose the focus I worked so hard to achieve here.  I’m afraid I’ll suddenly have less time to devote to writing and blogging because I’ll be too busy living.  I’m afraid I’ll again feel pulled in a million directions instead of just being content, not resigned, to where I am for the present moment.

If anything, New Zealand taught me how to stop racing forward and quit constantly looking back.  Being here taught me how to settle with a deep breath, still, relax into the moment. As I fly over the Tasman today, I know I’ll feel sad at leaving this greenscape dappled with unconcerned sheep.  But I know it’s time.  My career as a grape-picker is over.  Summer’s over.  Autumn is announcing itself in full-blast crimson, ocher and orange.  Everything has run out–the summer, my lease, my shampoo, my conditioner, my hair mousse, my facial moisturizer.  All signs say: time to go.

Next stop: Australia’s Gold Coast for ten days.  After that, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.  After that, Europe.  After that, I don’t know.  This is theme, isn’t it?  I Don’t Know.  Unsolicited Certainties.

I can’t even begin to predict what I’ll miss about New Zealand.  I’ve learned that it’s never the things we think it will be.  If I were to predict what I think I’ll miss, I’d take a gander and say I’ll probably miss the very things I loathe about this place right now.  Like the way the shops close at 4:30, the nothingness there is to do.

Yet, I know I’ve adapted more than I like to admit. (Scary.)

I will miss getting up at 5am and feeling refreshed and fully restored because I went to bed at eight.

I will miss the sheep and their stoic glances as I trod up the peak in the morning.

I will miss the playful tuis, swooping dangerously close, flapping their feather-fluffed wings loudly, unlike any other bird I’ve ever heard.

There are things I say I miss about the outside world.  Things like museums and the bustle and hustle of a nearby metropolis.  Or things like looking through shop windows and seeing people with shoes on.  Even if I didn’t take advantage of all those things on a regular basis, I miss having the luxury of having the option. I’m sure I’ll miss having the luxury of NOT having the option soon enough.

In my adult life, I’ve never been as stationary as I have been in the last nine months. I’ve never traveled more than twenty minutes by car to go anywhere. I can count on two fingers the last time I sat at a stop light in the last three months.  (There are roundabouts here.  Roundabouts, yield signs and stop signs.)   I’ll miss endless roundabouts without a traffic light in sight.

I’ll miss the quiet, still nights.

I’ll miss hearing the rain gush over the tin roof.photo(16)

I’ll miss the tin roof.  The way the birds hop loudly around up there at dawn, basking in the sun, waking the house up.

I’ll miss the views that unfurl in every direction.

I’ll miss living as if it were still the 80s.  People still actually ask whether or not you have internet and an email address.  People still use home phones more than mobile numbers and people still use answering machines that you can hear throughout the house.

I’ll miss the fierceness of the sun and how it warms everything fifteephoto(17)n degrees in an instant, causing the house to creak.

I’ll actually even miss my ’88 Nissan that I bought for $450NZ and just sold for $250NZ.

Today was my last hike up Te Mata Peak.  I think when I started doing these hikes I had complicated intentions.  I believed the physical difficulty was going to teach me some big lesson.  I set out to do these hikes as a way to live part of my mantra of this year, which is (I think I’ve mentioned) to “see something through for myself.”  But in these last few hikes, I’ve realized it’s not so much about me, or even challenging myself to follow through or explore resistance.  It’s about something far more simple than all that.  It’s about paying tribute to the moment and to that which is available to you in that moment.  It’s about honoring something instead of taking it for granted.  It’s about not wanting more or wishing for something different or thinking about being somewhere else.

This morning as I hiked there was a light mist shrouding the peak.  There was a streak of rainbow beyond the sheep, lighting the valley.  As I hiked for the last time, I was filled with something I can only describe as gratitude.  A full, overwhelming awe at how totally and completely thankful I am to have spent this time here in this far-flung magical place.  With each steep step upward, I felt gratefulness and thanksgiving with my whole body.  Gratefulness for the moment and for the last nine months.  Not a lick of fright for what’s to come.  The Peak taught me that.  New Zealand taught me that.  And that, to me, feels like an achievement, a pencil etching against the doorway that marks my growth.

At the top, breathless, I stretched my arms out, speechless.  All I can say is I won’t miss you, New Zealand.  I’ll long for you.  And for that, I should say thank you.  Or, as the Kiwis would simply say, ta.

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A Fantail in Your House

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While putting books into boxes, a fantail flew into the house through my open sliding glass door. She swooped in and nearly flew into my face when I rounded the corner.

Fantails are notoriously cheeky little birds–they are clever and chatty–never too shy to fly close to your head.  I can’t tell if they are aggressive and territorial or if they are flirty and friendly.  Either way, I’ve always found them delightful.   Until today.

She flew around the room, above the bed, above my desk and then fluttered into the den.  She perched on the light fixture, tilting her head every which way as she sized me up.  I asked her what she thought she was doing in here and opened the kitchen door for her but she seemed to be on a mission.  Ignoring the open door, she flew back into the bedroom, perched one more time on the doorway before flying back outside again.

I followed her and she chirped at me from the tree.  I laughed at her boldness then went back to packing my books, thinking nothing much of it.

Stack by stack, I removed my books from the shelf and placed them into the boxes.  I only stopped once to notice how stupid and careless I’d been to make notes in my signed first edition hardback copy of Mary Karr’s Lit.  (I could clobber myself for doing that.)

I was arranging the books, configuring them carefully inside the boxes, when I accidentally dropped one.  It was a small paperback in Italian, a book given to me by my ex-husband long before we were married.  I cracked open the first page to see what he had inscribed to me, “Con tutto l’amore possibile!!!”  With all the love possible.  So him.

The book, “There’s No Such Place as Faraway,” is a beautifully illustrated story, written by Richard Bach about a hummingbird, an owl and an eagle all on their way to a little girl’s birthday party.  It’s a touching story about distance and love, beginnings and endings–how none of us are ever without another, even if it might feel that we are.  He gave me this book when I was finishing my last year of college–when I was in Texas and he was in Italy.

Today was the first day I opened up that book in ages.  I flipped through it quickly, surprised at how nice it was to relive those emotions that used to pour over me as I turned each page, a whole decade after I first experienced them.  While the story itself doesn’t conjure such feelings, the illustrations sparked memories of my longing, all the suspenseful uncertainty of my early twenties, reminding me of the concerns that used to consume me.

Like,

When we could finally be together as adults, not students, would we still feel the same?  Would he love me like this — the way he does at such a distance — even when I am there?

I was so eager for my future to begin with him I could hardly be bothered with the present, full of classes and exams and final projects.  Everything I did was rushed and hastened–my days were designed so I might expedite my life as I knew it.  It was all a big strategy to get back to Italy.  I lived at home to save money.  When I wasn’t attending class, I was waiting tables at a steakhouse, saving every last cent I earned in tips so I would be able to afford a trip back across the pond.  Daily, I ran mile after mile–in the park, on the treadmill, in my parents’ neighborhood.  I equated movement with the passing of time, refusing to sit around and be lovelorn.  The way I saw it was, if I ran, at least I could measure the time in something other than just the months that separated us.  If I just kept moving, I thought, I would arrive at the end of each day a little bit closer to Italy.  A little bit closer to him.

As I took more books from their place on the shelf, it suddenly it occurred to me how strange it was that the fantail had come into my house just before I came across this particular book.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the meaning of a fantail entering your house.  As soon as I saw what it meant, I regretted looking it up.  According to Maori tribal legend, a fantail flying into your house means death.  Even as I write this, that little bird is in the tree outside, squeaking and chirping with urgency.

Unconvinced that a harmless fantail could be such a bearer of bad news, I scoured the Internet further in the hopes of disproving this information.  Unfortunately, other sites only confirmed this.  A fantail, apparently, is New Zealand’s grim reaper.  Only on one site did it say that it can also be interpreted as a sign of good fortune.  I went with it.  (I am really not that superstitious.  Unless, of course, it behooves me to be so.)

I taped more boxes together and loaded them up with more books.  Then I went back to that little book in Italian, still sitting outside the box.  I sat down on the carpet in a sunny spot and read the whole thing cover to cover, again, for the hundredth time.  But today, the book read differently.  Its message of transcending time and distance is just as powerful, just as enduring, if not more now that my ex-husband and I are no longer together.  The end, I remembered when I got there, is my favorite part.  Except when I read it now, I see that it’s not a book about distance and longing.  It’s about growing and learning and giving your gifts to the fullest.  It’s about learning to live without the ones you love; something we all must do at some point in our lives, whether it comes to you through death or divorce or distance.

Vola libera e felice,

al di la’ dei compleanni,

in un tempo senza fine, nel persempre.

Di tanto in tanto noi c’incontreremo

–quando ci piacera’–

nel bel mezzo dell’unica festa

che non puo mai finire.

***

(This is my own, rough, English translation:)

Fly free and happily

beyond birthdays,

without end, into forever.

Every so often we’ll find one another

–when we want to–

in that beautiful middle of the only party

that can never ever end. 

That beautiful middle of the party that can never end?  I suppose that’s life.  And I don’t think it means the life we live on Earth.  I think it’s meant to encompass everything–from way back when until forever and ever on distance stars far out in remote galaxies.

I look around and notice, once again, my usual state of transition.  This time, though, I am not in a hurry.   That wee little fantail?  I don’t think she was here to announce a literal death.  It seems to me she came to mark things more figuratively, the end of my time here in New Zealand.  I am grateful to her.

Afterall, had she not come in to flutter and dip and twirl, I might not have noticed.*

****

*Just as I finished writing this, the most extraordinary thing happened.  As if she could hear me writing this, I kid you not, the fantail returned!  This time, she came in through an open window in another room, flew into the room where I’m now writing, perched on the light fixture above my desk and chirped.  Too stunned to speak, I got up and followed her as she flew down the hall.  When she entered the empty room at the end of the hallway I closed the door behind me.  She flew in circles, chatting at me, while I opened a window for her.  After a few more circles, she flew out, libera e felice.

Secrets and Truths: Picking Grapes With Alice

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My picking buddy from Oklahoma didn’t show up the other morning.  We were out a vineyard called Woodthorpe (pictured below), a good forty-five minute drive into the hills.  You had to drive past the Maori cemetery and the old wooden church, past ramshackle stucco houses, past a goat tied up on the bank before turning off down a long gravel road.  (The picture above is a view from the long gravel road.)  I figured Austin and his green gumboot van were lost so I paired up with someone new.  Her name is Alice–pronounced Al-ee-chay–because she’s from Lake Como, Italy. 

Alice normally picks with an old man named Hans.  Hans is originally from Amsterdam but has lived in Hawke’s Bay for the last twenty years.  At first I thought Hans was a bit crazy because every time anyone would say anything in English, he’d try to translate for Alice (who speaks perfect English) into what he truly believed was Italian but was really Spanish. 

“Got that?”  boss man Larry said as he pointed to the rows he wanted picked.

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“Comprend-day?” Hans would say to Alice.  “Comprend-day means do you understand in Italian, right Alice?” 

Alice smiled, “Comprendi, capisici,” nicely correcting him. 

After three days of picking with Hans, Alice would probably be used to this by now.

Because Austin was absent, Alice was nice enough to pair up with me and let Hans find another picking partner for the day. I was sort of afraid this would happen.   At the time I just didn’t quite know why.

The thing about picking grapes is that it’s really kinda weird.  You’re going along with your gloves and your clippers and all you’re doing is clipping bunches from the vine and throwing them into a white bin on the ground underneath the vine.  You have all these lush green leaves in your face and you can’t see whose face the voice on the other side of the vine belongs to.   We are like a whole bunch of people talking to each other with buckets on our heads or blindfolds over our eyes.  You can only see who’s down the row next to you, and that’s if you look up.  But you don’t look up.  You just focus on the grape picking.  You do this for hours.  All day long.  Sometimes you talk to the person you’re picking with and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you eavesdrop on others’ conversations if they’re within earshot or sometimes you just zone out and get lost in your thoughts.  Sometimes you hear people humming or singing.  For the most part of the morning it was just like this, Alice and me, two little dots among fifty others working in an immense three-hundred acre vineyard.

Over the course of the morning she slowly told me about how she came to New Zealand on her own after decided she didn’t want to marry her long-time boyfriend in Italy.  She got herself a working holiday visa, packed her bags and came over.  She works wherever she can and (although you wouldn’t guess it by looking at her) she absolutely loves to be outside.  She doesn’t have much experience working with grapes and neither do I.  

The only other experience I have is that once I had a grapevine in a pot on my balcony in Perugia.  My mom was in town visiting me and we saw these sticks in green bags at the hardware.  We were delighted when we found out they were grapevines.  It was March, so we bought one and planted it in a small pot, a little experiment to see if it would grow.  Sometimes I remembered to water it and sometimes I didn’t.  That summer it sprouted tiny leaves and when fall came, the leaves turned color and fell off.

One warm spring day the following year I went out to sweep off the scraps winter left on the balcony and prepare my pots for some plants.  The grapevine looked like nothing more than a sorry, brown twig.  I thought it had died that winter from the cold and from my consistent neglect. I was all prepared with a big black garbage sack to throw the grapevine away when I noticed tiny green buds, little leaves about to spring through and into life.  This was nothing short of miraculous to me, that a plant could look so dead but be so alive inside.  Seeing these leaves was a spiritual experience for me, kind of like when you’re sad and you suddenly see an unexpected rainbow.  At that time, my parents were going through a shocking divorce and there was a lot to lose faith about in life.  This little sign of growth meant something momentous to me.  It was a touch of grace, a sign of steadfast faith, an enormous relief to see that all wasn’t lost and that sometimes things aren’t as they seem.  Full of gratitude and humbled with the awesomeness of nature, instead of throwing it away, I repotted it into something more spacious and vowed to take better care of it. 

A few years later when my husband and I moved into a house with a yard, I repotted the grapevine again.  I tied it to a big stick so it could grow sturdy and strong.  My plan was to eventually plant it square into the ground, somewhere we would both take roots permanently.  I wanted to be able to see it every day and remember the special symbolism it held for me.  But apparently other plans were in store. 

One day our yellow lab escaped from the house and tore off with it–pot and all–dragging the whole plant into the middle of the yard, lording over it like it was the carcass of an animal he killed.  The whole scene was outrageous.  I’m running after the dog, he’s running from me like a naughty child and I’m fuming because he’s got my grapevine.  “Barney!  Put that down!”  Of course he pays me no mind.  So what did I do?  I laughed.  Then I went back in the house to get my camera.  This, I thought, will be the last time I see this grapevine alive.  So I snapped a picture.  It was of a smiling Barney, very pleased with himself for having annihilated my beautiful, leafy and healthy grapevine.  Nonetheless, I took my beloved grapevine and replanted it yet again, just in case. 

Again, she lived. 

Through winters, through moves, through my parents’ divorce and through Barney’s strangling, this little vine kept chugging along with life, regardless.

When I separated from my husband, I took my grapevine.  I had no idea what I was going to do with it, seeing how I’d intended to plant it at the new house we were building–the house I designed but would never actually live in or see complete.  I figured I’d find a place in the country somewhere and plant it there, firmly in the ground but in the end, I gave it away.  The last time I saw it, it seemed content to be growing up the side of a small cottage in the Umbrian countryside in a gigantic terracotta pot.  I was slightly heartbroken to part with it but happy to have seen it live to yield a few grapes.   

This was not the story I told Alice but this is why I was afraid to pick grapes with her.  I knew she would ask me about how I got here and I knew it would be the first time I’ve told an Italian, in Italian, my story. 

It’s never easy to know where to begin a story.  Each story always contains so many potential beginnings.  So many parts of a story can be snagged on a detail and before you know it you’re off an an irrelevant tangent, tangled up in another tale altogether.  I was relieved when Alice prompted my beginning by asking me why it was I spoke Italian so well.  I told her I was married to an Italian.  Because she was almost married to an Italian, this turned out to be the common thread we shared—refusing to live the life of an Italian wife.  She talked about how hard it was for her to see her older sister get married and struggle with trying to balance a career and a new baby.  She said she knew she didn’t want that for herself but that’s what would be expected of her if she married.  I told her about how I, too, faced similar pressures in the role of wife to an Italian in a tightly-knit Italian family.  I told her about how much I loved him, how much I loved his family, what a picture perfect, secure life we had together.  It was only after a few minutes of talking that I found myself unable to continue.  I stopped, stricken.  Here was someone who completely and totally understood me.  And she didn’t even know me.  Yet she experienced the same truth I had: you don’t leave someone because you don’t love them. 

It was a huge emotional trigger to retell my story in the language in which it happened.  In New Zealand, they would call this being “gutted.”  And I was.  Completely and totally slashed open.  It was one of those moments, and I don’t know if it’s just me or if everyone has them, when your life suddenly feels like it’s drowning you.  It floods at you from all directions, gushing, pouring, leaking in through cracks you didn’t even know were there and before you can catch your breath you’re swimming in the depths of it all, wondering when life got like this.  How did I get from there–the story I was telling–to here, crying my eyes out to a girl I just met, unable to properly wipe the tears off my face because of my dirt-covered gloves? 

Alice was quiet.  It was just the sound of our clippers, the grapes dropping into our bins and my sniffling.  Then she said, “You did the right thing.  You know you did because it could have been so much easier.” 

She gets it, I thought.  She totally gets it.  

Hans, however, was a different story.  He was inching down the row, moving closer and closer to us as the tractor approached to empty our bins.  He started hollering stuff at Alice, asking her how to say stuff in Italian.  “Nunca es demasiado tarde!” he yelled.  “Isn’t that how you say it’s never too late, Alice?”  

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi,” she said loudly back in his direction.

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi!” he yelled at the vines at the top of his lungs.  “Mai troppo tardi!”

“Can Hans understand Italian?” I asked in a whisper, in Italian.  I figured he must have seen me crying or maybe overheard bits and pieces of the story of my failed marriage.  Why else would he start yelling that out?  What else does Hans think he knows besides Italian? 

“No, I don’t think so.” she said.

After that, Alice and I talked about other things like wine and food and what it’s like to be in your late twenties without children when everyone you know has a husband or a baby or four kids or all of the above.  It felt good to be seen, despite those vines in our faces. 

At the end of the day, once the last row is emptied of grapes, you head back towards base, where the porta-loos are and where the cars are parked.  It’s the best part of the day because as you walk back, you stop to help gather the last few grapes yet to be picked.  Everyone is shoulder to shoulder, picking in unison, chit-chatting, listening, humming. 

Alice is next to me.  We are pushing back the leaves, looking for hidden bunches to snip.  “It feels like there are secrets in these vines,” I say.  “Secrets and truths.”

One Girl’s Great New Zealand Grape-picking Adventure

March is New Zealand’s September.  Days become noticeably shorter, light begins to shift and the mornings take on a new found crispness.  For the first time in five months you jump out of bed and straight into your fuzzy warm robe and slippers.  You wrap up and immediately get the hot water kettle going, anxious for the sun to work its incubating magic.

This is what the end of summer feels like, in March.  I don’t get it, really.  My whole being is off kilter, my Norths and Souths flip flopped.  Here, South is cold, North is warm.  Christmas is in summer and Easter is in autumn.  A few weeks ago it was back to school for local kids.  I can hardly keep up.  My mind continues to reset itself to a new calendar while my body picks up on the subtleties of change.  That air of promise and newness that September holds?  It’s palpable and very real.  I always equated it to the nostalgia of sharpened number two pencils or the beat of a snare drum at a football game.  I thought the feeling was synonymous with September, less about the actual season.  But it isn’t.  That settled feeling fall has, the atmosphere full of promising change, it’s real.  It happens.  Even in March.  Even without football.

Like September in the Northern hemisphere, March in the Southern hemisphere means harvesting, in this region especially.  “Sunny” Hawke’s Bay, is known for its Northern California-like temperate climate.  Citrus plants produce year-round and everything grows like mad thanks to the perfect blend of super-intense sunshine and just the right amount of rain. Apples, pears, peaches, corn, bell peppers, nearly everything is ripe and ready.  Especially the grapes.  They dangle like gems, row after glorious row of leafy vines, striating the surrounding valleys and hillsides.

And just like California, they make excellent wines here.

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It’s ironic to me that in all my ten years in Italy I never once picked a grape but the first time I’m in New Zealand, I get myself a grape-picking gig.  I’ll be picking for a winery called Te Mata (pictured above), working alongside local pensioners (how hard can it be?!) as well as traveling tourists looking to make a buck on their holiday.  The locals do it for extra pocket change, seeing it as a chance to socialize, not because they actually need the money.  And because “the money” is no more than a pittance, I have my suspicions that the tourists do the work for the same reason I will be, purely for the experience.  (There certainly won’t be any free wine out of it!)

If the weather continues as is, we will start March 11th.  This means a seven o’clock start and a six o’clock finish (I think).  This means I’ll wear my oldest clothes with holes in them, freeze my bum off for a few hours in the morning, sweat in the midday sun, scarf down a quick sandwich during our half-hour lunch break before counting down the hours to quitting time.  All this, every day, for SIX weeks; rain or shine.  (Weekends too!)

Needless to say, I’m a bit concerned.  I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ve certainly never done “hard labor” before.  (Unless you consider waiting tables at a steak house while in college “hard labor.”)  I’ll be wearing gloves, for Pete’s sake.  My hands are probably going to go into cramp spasms.

When I told my mother I’d be picking grapes for six weeks her response was dry.  There was no hint of excitement in her voice, no admiration for my sense of adventure.  It was just a flat,  Let me know how that goes, Regina.  This response is such a classic mother-daughter technique.  I muster some courage to do something probably pretty stupid and not at all a valuable use of my time and my all she has to do is sigh to remind me who I am.  One huff made by my mother and I’m immediately reminded of how ridiculous an endeavor this might prove to be.  She knows it and I know it: I have no business going out there and picking grapes.  It might sound romantic, but really, we all know the truth: I’m going to hate it.  Still.  I’m doing it.  For reasons mostly unknown, even to me.

For some reason, my mother’s comment reminds me of my youngest sister Jenny on her first day of kindergarten.  She was so excited to be heading off on the bus, her first full day of school.  In the afternoon when she got off the bus and my mother asked her, “So, how was it?”  My sister snarled back, “We didn’t even get a snack.”  Luckily, we have all this on video.  Jenny stomps down our street, literally dragging her purple backpack behind her while my mother follows slowly, chuckling on tape.

So let me just say, for the record (and especially if you’re taping this, Mom), I’m not going into grape-picking with the naivete of an excited kindergartener on her first day of school.  I don’t expect to get any snacks (besides all the grapes I can eat) and I don’t expect I’ll really even like it.  What I do expect, is to come home with a lot of red stains, tired hands and perhaps a little perspective.  I might even be fortunate enough to come home with a lot of good stories which I plan on posting right here for your reading enjoyment.  Wish me luck.  (And please Lord, no rain.)