Tag Archives: USA

Juggling truth and fiction

Twain and I

It’s been a while since I posted on this site, because I find it difficult to write fiction and fact at the same time. But I realise that it is important to move forward, to become more capable, not to simply label myself as incapable and find acceptance in that. So time to try juggling fact and fiction. And US politics* seems a good place to practice that particular dexterity.

I recently watched Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’, an exploration of governance done better. And it reflected what I’d experienced in my time in the States. I could see so many beautiful ideas that had found expression through the formation of that country. But many people I talked to expressed dismay at the changes in the way the country was going. It’s so hard talking with people whose hope is failing, when you’re bubbling inside with all the possibilities you’ve found.

I think something Michael Moore and I would agree on (and I’m sure there are many others, attitudes to diet and trucker-caps notwithstanding), is that it was the ability to start anew was at the heart of what made America attractive. You were less fettered by convention, your ancestry didn’t determine your path through life.  But one of the most damaging aspects of ‘progress’ is the ability to communicate ideas to populations instantaneously. Once the barriers of landscape and environment are eliminated, you become subject once again to other people’s spheres of influence. Fears, prejudices, lies, airport security measures, Indian Jones 5.

I watched another film (hey, it’s almost winter and I’m saving money for the next adventures…) last week, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’. It reminded me of how individual my country had been when I was young, when it was truly an island adrift from the rest of the world. For a brief period there, there was a chance to build something special, to export something positive, to live up to our image as somewhere pure and clean, yet rugged and enterprising. But alas, we sold out, and now our Prime Minister is someone who thinks we should make decisions because ‘that’s how we’ll get rich’.

Obviously I don’t have the answers to all of this. But I’ve learnt to try to do better. I’ve learnt to live thoughtfully, to understand and counteract my prejudices, to spend more time with those people I admire. And I have to find a way to write about the things I care about through this blog, as well as through a novel. Because you have to make the world a better place, not just wish it was one.

Of course all this earnest positivity will always be mixed with beer drinking, outdoor adventures and Mexican food. And hopefully alongside an ever-changing cast of inspiring people. I need to brave enough to confront my mistakes, but also to have the courage to risk making new ones. And I love all the people who ever encourage me along that treacherous but rewarding path.

I’d like to dedicate this post to Linda and Kylie, two people who remind me of the rewards of being open to try something new. I’m looking forward to the next Port tasting…

*Ok I didn’t really get ’round to talking about US politics, but it’s a little hard to steer away from cynicism when discussing that particular race towards devolution. See?

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Ten weeks in the US

Blog vodka

Over the past few days I’ve started feeling myself transitioning towards my next destination. Chatting to myself in an Essex accent, considering what something might cost me in pounds or Icelandic Krona. I’ve been resisting this as much as possible though, so that I can draw as much as possible from my last weeks here. Every day her has had unexpected surprises, strange encounters and at least one “accidental” exposure to high fructose corn syrup. This week it was American Donuts. Homer Simpson, I concur.

One of the simplest ways to access another culture is via their food. My mate Paul has worked in the grocery trade back home for yeeeeaaars. He and I discovered Eastern Europe together a few years back, as part of an Oktoberfest training mission. The first thing we’d do on hitting a new country is visit a supermarket, buy up unknown deli delights that could be placed on bread, and had a backpacker picnic. Uncle Bully would have cried if he’d been with me on my first foray into a King Soopers store. Nothing in this unfeasibly huge warehouse of edibles comes in just a single variety. A hundred different bottled waters, a dozen different icing sugars. Ice Cream. Baseball nut ice cream (no idea), cotton candy ice cream, lunar cheesecake, “Icing on the Cake” ice cream, and (I shit you not) “Premium churned reduced fat no sugar added caramel turtle truffle flavour”. I can’t be left in the freezer section alone.

A couple of days ago I popped into a bottle-shop/bottlo/liquor store to buy gifts. Same gig, key lime and cream vodka, seriously. It was a mecca for booze hags. I’ve been somewhat bemused by the ability of US TV cops to drink all afternoon, tip the barman eighty dollars, bounce of every wall on the way out of the pub, heave their last three Long Islands into a gutter, then pull out their car keys. The attitude towards drinking and driving may, just may, need addressing. Bars are frequently in the middle of nowhere, next to a highway, with huge car parks. And the beers are cheap. Cover your eyes fellow craft beer drinkers, because here I’m paying around $4 for a pint of good nitro milk stout. They stop just short of asking if you’d like that pint of absinthe in a take away cup.

I’ve been out on expeditions a couple of times with a talkative, intelligent gent, a home brewer with an entertainingly understanding of booze. Unfortunately a drink driving incident a couple of years ago means he now has to blow into a breathalyser attached to his cars ignition, prior to driving. Once the car’s in motion he then gets peeped at every fifteen minutes, and again has to blow, or something happens. Maybe the engine dies, and the power breaks and steering lock, I don’t know, I haven’t been shared a bottle of tequila with him on the road. He also had to undergo all manner of other anti drink driving education prior to even getting back in the car. So there’s punishment for those who get shid-faced, then drive, then get caught. But the inebriated horse has already bolted. Room for improvement, America. Just sayin’.

One of the most valuable discoveries in the past week, has been the introduction to the “Tiny House” movement. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Colorado living in a trailer park. Firstly these miniature communities have all the imagined entertainment benefits. The stories behind why people shift into them are often visceral, and hugely varied. They’re also far more communal than a suburban setting, no fences, entertainment spaces (car ports) open to the street, thin walls. Your bongo playing, midweek boozing and stand-up arguments are communal activities. But far more relevantly to a wandering pedlar of stories, they’re affordable. People choose to live here because they’re don’t end up tied into a thirty mortgage. Ok, and because in some cases no bank would ever offer them one. But you can buy a trailer for the price of a car, and pay a low rental fee to the park owners. There are some sound lessons here, and the owner of a beautifully renovated trailer opposite Francoise’s put me onto “Tumbleweed Homes”.

Home

The “tiny house” idea takes things a step further, it involves serious “downsizing”. These owner built shelters are all about eliminating unnecessary space, they’re a counter to the huge McMansions that loom in new housing developments, and all the stresses associated with them. They’re not for everyone, if you like swinging cats you’ll be disappointed. But you can build one for as little as $10,000, and as long as it’s small enough, you can install it on a trailer. There are minimum house size requirements in the US, but if you can mount it on wheels, you can construct to any size you like. I’m taking some of the ideas back home. I don’t need five bedrooms, I need a space of my own which I’ve built to meet my needs. And to avoid the stress of lifetime debt. And to live in a community that accepts the twitchy writer guy who lives in a treehouse…

Sigh. In two days I’m leaving Colorado for Iceland. I imagine it’ll take some time for me to digest all that I’ve been through here in the States, spending time in Europe and Britain will no doubt help me apply perspective. I’ve had my expectations variously fulfilled, exceeded and trampled upon. And I’ve met some beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent people. To all of you that have helped a kiwi discover sand boarding, rock climbing, and rules around Native Americans getting exclusive rights to sell fireworks, thank you so, so much. To all the Americans I didn’t get to meet, maybe next time. I’ll definitely be back.

The light and dark of road trips

Bigger

It’s vultures that circle the skies, from Colorado down through to Arizona. The hawks and eagles are in remission this year, and maybe the one before. The carrion feeders are on display, and at times it’s a little unnerving. Like when you’re low on fuel fifty miles from your destination, on desert flanked roads.

Over the past ten days I’ve travelled South West, across a dry, over-stretched lands. More than ever it has become apparent how this country was born of her passageways, first her railways, then her roads. The combined powers of the oil and transport industries have conspired with politicians to produce the cheapest gas prices I’ve experienced. The result is a nation scattered across a continent, with hundreds of miles between real destinations. And the hulks that travel the black top, churning through fossil fuels that this country seems so loathe to give up, they’re evidence of ignorance limited global resources. Huge RV’s tow four-wheel drives, which in turn are loaded with Harley’s. Madness.

Restaurants and gas stations are centred on nothing more substantial than the road. A million miles of anchor points for the chain takeaway empires fencing their wares. It’s not just the V8’s that tear through crude fuels on voyages between the States, their drivers need high fructose corn syrup to hammer that accelerator. Amongst the repeated signposts though, are the struggling entrepreneurs, the Moms and Pops trying to make a living from the fast travelling millions. So road trips are long stretches of gradually shifting scenery, punctuated by handmade signposts beckoning towards vaguely promising distractions. We pull over for cheap root beer floats, fields of coloured dinosaurs or UFO watch towers. Anything to  break up the journey, and allow engagement with what we hope will be true American characters, aching to leak unlikely stories and sketchy explanations for their way of life.

At least these people are fighting to make a living, no doubt balancing a number of revenue streams, and employing friends and family where possible. It’s the reservation lands though, that speak to my heart. Intermittent, unkempt “Travel centres” are advertised as being run by tribes, names that I have always associated with pride. Navajo, Ute, Lakota. But these rundown halls offer only broken coffee machines, two litre slushies and an unvarying array of “hand crafted” trinkets. They’re usually overseen by despondent, overweight women.

Worse than these though, are the faded advertising boards which count you down to casino turn offs. Each time the promised centres of “hot gaming” are horrid windowless buildings squatting in a fenced off portion of wilderness. There are always a few dozen cars littering the mid day mid-week car parks. How can these fetid holes be a temptation? One proudly advertises all you can eat crab legs for twenty bucks. It hardly seems a steal, and I can imagine the stench as the patrons hiccup and belch at the pokie machines, greasy yellow stains dappling their frontage. Yellowed teeth are no doubt bared as they stab at the buttons, their shambling motions dislodging crustacean shards onto shiny surfaces, then to be picked out by rhythmic pulsing lights. Shudder.

It seems that there is a canyon separating these tribal people from the rest of the nation, and that continued ignorance is widening the gap. On a reservation campsite we get a talk from a young half Navajo ranger, and he mentions how nice it is to get the chance to talk to others about the ways of his people. He talks of past achievements of his ancestors with fondness, but the litter covered grounds of his peoples National Park seem to speak of giving up. In my country we’ve had our problems, our difficulties between those who came before, and those who arrived after. Some of the Maori tribes in New Zealand are creating positive changes through engaging with their cultural heritage, I can only hope that the same is happening here in the United States. And that these examples will eventually be a beacon for those who seem to have abandoned hope.

After almost two months of engaging with this country, I’m starting to see the cracks. I love the landscapes and the critters. I love the ideas behind what America was meant to be. I love the chocolate cream pie. The coffee…not so much. It honestly seems that for a long time now this really has been a land of opportunity for many people. But things seem to be coming undone. A new nation is a little like a newly founded religion. This country was set up, much like a fresh faith, with so much positivity, with such positive ideals, and with such trustworthy ambition. But the world’s religions begin to lose their way when they place intermediaries between the believers and their belief. Translators of god’s word. Keepers of the faith. And it is especially dangerous when these intermediaries are given powers and knowledge beyond the rest of us mortals. The US government is now keeping secrets from its people, implementing hidden laws to “protect” the flock. Secret spying, offshore prisons where people are held indefinitely without trial, stealing people away in the night from both within and outside of her borders. America is slowly sacrificing those most important things it stood for.

Maybe this shift will be undone. Protests exist, and in Boulder I’ve talked to a lot of frustrated, intelligent people who see the issues. But it seems that in general there’s a tendency towards national complacency, complacency encouraged by the media. A media which often encourages rage in all the wrong directions. I have seen so much to love about this country, and met a range of positive, self motivated people. I hope that people like these will be able to shake the others out of their sugar-fuelled drudgery, in time to halt the backwards slide. Because I want to return here and see a lot more. But I wonder quietly, if someone somewhere will be reading this blog, and putting a wee cross next to my name.

One month in America (the United States of)

"Freedom is, the only way yeeaaaah..."
“Freedom is, the only way yeeaaaah…”

One of the things I enjoyed most about living in the UK is regionality. I loved that I could spend Friday evening interpreting Liverpudlian accents, and then on Saturday head to a fitba (soccer) match just 45 minutes away, and have to learn a whole new dialect from drunk Mancunians. And it is so much more than just catch phrases and football songs. Attitudes towards homosexuality, the monarchy and farming are all influenced by where you first learnt to kick a ball. I always put this down to a relatively long history, I assumed that it was thousands of years of inventing slang and crafting hot puddings that led to such stark cultural differences. So bugger me blind if I wasn’t surprised to discover a similar situation here in the U.S. Ok, I have to be drive a little further, maybe six or seven hours, but there are accent shifts, cowboy hat frequencies and the delicious sub genre favourite pies to consider. In shifting your location a sub(marine sandwich) might become a hoagie, a hero, or a po’boy. Or even a muffalotto (yay Birmingham, Alabama!) You might drink a Coke with this in Texas, but in New York it’d be a pop, and a soda in Colorado. As far as I can tell, the vast distances between places to live, have resulted in a faster development of differences. Which makes it so much more entertaining on road trips, discovering toasted marshmallow milkshakes in one state, then promotion of rodeo heroes to rock star status in the next. When you add these quirks to the monumental landscape changes, and an abundance of wildlife (which changes with state lines too) how can you not be enchanted? Or at least hugely entertained.

South Dakota snacks...
South Dakota snacks…

Whilst in South Dakota over the past week, we stayed in a small town called Deadwood. I’ve never seen the apparently very violent TV series, but mention of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane was enough to pique my interest. We set up camp at a motel on the edge of town, which I was delighted to see had an industrial ice machine for guests. I remember this bizarre detail from films of road trips across the West, it seems no night in a budget motel is complete without an emergency kidney removal in a chilled bathtub. As I contemplated a home-made slushy, we noted a flyer advising that a public gun fight was due to start at 6:00pm. Colour me excited! A fast trot took us to the slowly filling sidewalks (not footpaths), and we took a squat on the pavement amongst the burgeoning crowds. We were soon twitching at gunfire, grimacing at over-acting, and taking part in the trial of Jack McCall, cowardly assassin of Wild Bill. There was country music, there were gags, and there were thick layers of American cheese. But as a gent I spoke to yesterday put it, America is good at corny. And he emphasised the GOOD. And they are, I can’t imagine the re-enactment of Wild Bill’s death in a crowded saloon bar being done quite as well, yet ever so slightly badly, anywhere else. So now I want to check out medieval times, before I head over to Scotland for a rollicking highland games…

Serious hat envy
Serious hat envy

One disturbing revelation on the road, has been my growing appreciate for the culture of tipping. Like all hard-working, poorly served kiwis, the idea of people expecting a tip bewildered me. Until I experienced the results. Considerably cheaper meals helped aid the transition, but from day two I’ve happily been adding an extra 20% on top of my buffalo burger bill. Because in return for this socialised tax you get a dose of (sometimes genuine) positivity. Being greeted with a grin, and then actively engaged with just enhances my good mood, no matter the reasons for the conviviality. I get a huge menu selection, a meal to last all day, and a chat with the waitress (server…) about whether key lime pie lived up to my expectations. Oh, and “cowboy coffee”. Eek, how easily smiles can soften my stoney heart!

Marshmallow milkshakes. So so wrong. But just a little bit right...
Marshmallow milkshakes. So so wrong. But just a little bit right…

In between bursts of travel along the interstate highways, I’ve been spending a week at a time back in Boulder. This gives me time to get to grips with all I’ve seen, and to write of it, and try to draw conclusions from my experiences. Of course it’s not seven days huddling over my laptop in a library. I’m getting to attend birthday parties, meals and gigs with all sorts of people, and to share my insights, and build on them with each engagement. One thing I’ve noticed on these occasions is that many people seem to possess a more natural ability to offer a compliment, and indeed to accept one. I’ve seen this numerous times, and although occasionally there are obvious motivations, in general it just seems to be a selfless kindness. And I’m warming to it. I’ve spent a few years growing my inner cynic, thanks to spending long periods of time dwelling on the wrongs I see being done in the world. And time in England (with the help of witty comedic heroes like Frankie Boyle and David Mitchell) helped craft a bitter (with a twist of witty) edge to my writing. And I guess at times, my personality. So now I’m feeling somewhat invigorated for getting a chance to tell someone they look stunning, without them waiting for a punchline, or assuming I’m envisioning them manacled to a wall in a nurses uniform.

Dan helps me find something new to wear in Denver
Dan helps me find something new to wear in Denver

So sunny days, gun slinging, chocolate and peanut butter pie, I’m hooked. As an eye-opening, expectation twisting adventure, the US is brilliant, but it’s the depth of cultural experience that is proving my greatest thrill. I’m looking forward to countering cowboy experiences with visits to native American reservations, tasting even better tequila, and (weirdly) further rattlesnake encounters. But already this trip has changed my opinions, inspired dozens of writing ideas, and exceeded my expectations. Magic.

Burro

First week in the U S of A

Cabin deck

International differences in slang are ripe for giggles. Whilst at my sister’s backpackers in Derry a Canadian came into the kitchen laughing, and telling us that her boyfriend was double-fisting in the garden. At this point I realised that the fanny pack wasn’t likely the only snort-worthy misreading of intentions I was likely to encounter, should I visit the America’s. A couple of days ago Francoise and I went for a walk around the Farmers Market in central Boulder, and then for a stroll through the bohemian quarter. At one end was a “Cheesecake Factory”, and whilst jittering at the number of © and (™)’s on the menu, I noticed they served “root beer”. “wass that then?” I asked. Quickly I was led to Mountain Sun, a brew pub which happens to make their own root beer. Now for Kiwis (and Aussies) the giggles might have already begun, as a “root” in the Southern hemisphere, is another name for sex. I guess a root beer lowers everyone’s inhibitions? But when I was asked whether I’d like to take it away in a “growler” my poker face gave way. Down under (don’t even start) a growler is a cheeky euphemism for a woman’s lady-parts. Of course we passed a playground on the way back to the car which had a beaver on full display, and at this point I’m sure my estimation in Francoise’ eyes must have dropped. If not then I’m sure we’ll be friends forever.

One of the things that’s sometimes struck me about a couple of the Americans I met whilst travelling, is that they tended to vocalise almost everything that passes through their minds. “That’s a big ol’ bus” as a bus goes by, or “mmm-mmm, that’s red wine alright” as they take a sip of (yip) red wine. Occasionally these same individuals also dropped over the top responses to minimal stimuli, “Oooooh my Lord! Sweet Jebuz wrap me in a chunky Kentucky man’s bathing costume and throw me to the coyotes…” in response to a traffic light shifting from amber to green. I’m so used to growing up in New Zealand, a world of muttered, muted understatement, that this broadcasting of one’s inner monologue always used to seem a little…attention seeking. Like the red headed cousin that’s lost the focus of their neurotic parents attention and decides to shove dry roasted peanuts up their nose until the cough-cry-snot combo has the desired affect. This morning I went on a bird hunting hike with a group of around 25 citizens, most in their 60’s, and I had to shift my perspective. The harmonic vocalised enthusiasm that accompanied every hummingbird spotting was endearing when matched with widened eyes and “o” shaped lips. I’m glad my inner cynic has given way, I’d sooner listen to a chorus of oohs and aaaaahs of appreciation, than a cacophony of scornful derision. Expressed happiness trumps arched eyebrows and rolling eyes heavenwards.

Amongst the childish observations, I’ve also jumped in the deep end, and been trying to draw real learnings from my experiences and conversations. One thing I’m finding is that there seem to be serious concerns that the US Government is working hard to reduce people’s freedom to choose. The implementation of the Patriot Act utilised a nation’s fears to introduce Big Government in a nation built on rejecting State control. And since then it seems further erosion of freedoms, many which appear to contravene the constitution, are causing angst, though maybe not for enough people. Despite this though, there’s still an underlying belief amongst people I’ve met so far, that they should be able to achieve anything they want, as long as they’re prepared to work for it. And just as importantly, they have picked their own paths through life, avoiding “convention” when it ran contrary to their needs. And up until recently the mix of federal and state leadership promoted this. Imagine 50 regions with different environments, different laws, different attitudes. Americans have been able to choose to live in the area that suited their desired lifestyle, from gun control laws to attitudes towards homosexuality. I love the idea of those sorts of personal freedoms. But it seems increasing federal powers threaten the ability of States to maintain this degree of independence. Hopefully Americans still have the will to protect their freedom of choice, hopefully they won’t sacrifice it in fear, so that the state can “keep them safe”. Hopefully they continue to insist that the Government support the right of the individual to be just that, an individual.

So. At the moment, I’ve got a bit of a man-crush on the US. Ok, I’m on holiday, I don’t have to fight others for a job, I don’t have to be concerned over my children’s education. My glasses are definitely rose tinted. But each day I find a dozen grins, a half dozen chuckles, and several stunned shakes of the head. Soon I’ll have to staple a bungy cord between my forehead and my chin to stop my jaw hitting the ground so frequently. As far as I’m concerned, this is an incredible land, and I can’t recommend enough that people come here and give these people and this country a big hug.

On the first three days in Colorado

Dude ranch

I love the idea of the United States of America battling my expectations. It’s the country on which I have the most opinions on, from the least reliable sources, from The Dukes of Hazard, to anything written in New Zealand newspapers. I’ve found that from the few opportunities I’ve had to engage with wandering US citizens, I’ve been left with reassessed opinions and altered prejudices. So how will spending ten weeks based in Colorado, and the resulting experiences, chats and observations, affect my views of this rapidly changing empire? Well, three days in, let’s look at three areas: food, just how many places I recognise, and hospitality.

Until recently my understanding of food culture in the 50 states, was that in general, huge unhealthy meals, and bizarre sounding snacks were king. I imagined travellers would be hard-pressed to find alternatives to chicken wings done 50 ways, corn dogs, and anything where they ask if you’d “like fries with that”. And that when they needed something to stretch overfull bellies between meals, they’d have to order snickerdoodles or Ding Dongs with a straight face. But within hours of arriving in L.A. (and before I had a chance to eat) I had relocated to Boulder, Colorado. This state is an enormous, beautiful, natural playground, and has the lowest levels of obesity and sedentary lifestyle in the nation. I’m prepared to confront other sides to the “what American’s eat” story, but here I’ve been enchanted with the foods, and a passion for “good” eating. The edible options I’ve been tasting and cooking with so far are frequently organic, carefully selected, and genuinely delicious. Mexican ingredients seem to take centre stage (adventurous salsas are a favourite so far), and game foods are far more prevalent than back home. For those who decline flesh, there seems to be substantial vegetarian delights, indeed the predominant incisor despisers are reportedly vegans and raw food zealots. So for now, my US diet has been more healthy, more tasty and contained less high fructose corn syrup than expected. Prejudice adjusted, to be reviewed over my next hundred meals, and after a weigh-in.

We travelled from Boulder to a cabin in the woods near Mount Evans, over memorial weekend (think flags, flag pants, unrelenting patriotism). On the way we passed Red Rocks Ampitheatre (where U2 recorded “Under a Blood Red Sky”) and Dinosaur Ridge, an incredible mecca for Jurassic nerds around the world. The next day I was unexpectedly taken to South Park (the very same), where I walked a section of the Colorado Trail. All of this within a radius of under fifty miles (local slang for 80km). I had no idea just how packed with recognisable locations America would be. What are already entertaining road trips (trailers boasting 80 flavours of jerky, scenery out of Road Runner crossed with any John Wayne Western), become events in themselves, as reference packed as a wander through central London. I’m discovering that this ridiculously huge landscape is fair over flowing with must see, wouldn’t-mind-seeing, and funny-to-note destinations. Ten weeks is looking a little weak, for even one state.

I was warned by a number of people over the years, that Americans were friendly, welcoming and hospitable. So far this is an unadjusted notion. I’ve been humbled by the warmth with which people (three in three days) have welcomed me into their homes. My third and briefest host invited us up for a chat after spying us walking the trail under his mountain perched cabin. John and his friend Eve gave us the grand tour of his self built timber paradise, from the humid greenhouse, to a koi carp pond that frequently hosted bears and other wildlife (evidence provided via an always on “Game Cam” mounted above the fish filled pool). They then plied us with travel tales, local gossip, beer, and a feeling we’re not intruding on their privacy. We walk away not quite sober, with photos of the wild turkeys stalking his garden, slideshow CD’s, and a copy of Eve’s world beating photo of a “sad squirrel”. Bless.

My cautious optimism has been boosted to unbridled enthusiasm by a country which I hadn’t yet visited, because I didn’t know where to start. An opportunity to have my introduction led by Francoise has proven one of my life’s great decisions. She has a truly adventurous heart, and I have already been spoilt with daunting landscapes, fascinating commentaries, and the promise of brewing beer together. It’s always the people that make a country for me, and based on my experience so far America is a beautiful, eclectic country, hopefully finally taking steps towards self reflection. I’m glad I got to meet her now, and I am eager to explore further.