Under South African Skies

Always Something New To Do

July 27, 2009

I feel a little bit like a new mother when I talk about Cape Town; everything is framed in terms of “firsts.” But while a new mom would talk about her baby’s first smile, first bath and first night of sleep without crying, I find myself thinking about the first time I climbed Table Mountain, the first time first time I correctly pronounced someone’s name and the first time I ate a Gatsby, a ridiculous sub sandwich with greasy meat and French fries on the bread.

We’re now beginning our fourth week in Cape Town and as those firsts turn into seconds and thirds, we are becoming acclimated with what will be our schedule for the next four months. We’ve completed our second week of classes and many of us have already turned in assignments. Most members of our group met this past week with the service site coordinators who will help us organize the service work we’ll be doing in correlation with our Leaders in Grassroots Organizations class. We’ve even established that Sunday will be the day each week that we all share a meal together…like a real family. Uncle Brian can’t wait to unleash his Class A spaghetti on the house.


It is very exciting to begin feeling normal in a new culture, because that at least partly indicates a sense of comfort with a way of life that was once completely unfamiliar. On the second day I went to the Nyanga township where I will be teaching guitar lessons in an after-school program, the children who attend the program’s music, sports, and cultural awareness classes were familiar faces. (The boy below is a three-year-old named Asa. Though he is too young to attend the program, he pushes a chair from class to class as though it is a car and is referred to by students and staff as the school’s principal.)


Principal of Nomlinganiselo's after-school program

Principal of Nomlinganiselo's after-school program



As I attended classes for the second time, we moved past the introductory phase and into the real issues we will be talking about: the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, inescapable poverty in the city’s townships, and the theology of reconciliation and forgiveness in a country that knows these topics better than most.


While I am thrilled to be getting used to things here, I am also conscious of not wanting to fall into too much of a routine. I think the more times I repeat an activity, whether it is teaching a class, going to a grocery store or eating at a certain restaurant, the more likely I am to stop paying as much attention to what I’m doing. If my life is full of the same activities every day, chances are I’ll be missing a lot.

Even though we’re still in the early stages of our trip, we’ve been conscious of trying new things. Saturday, Ryan Corr and I climbed towards Devil’s Peak, a more rugged but smaller summit than Table Mountain. We made sure we wore our outdoorsy but unnecessary camping backpacks to indicate to everyone we passed how extreme we were.

Others in the group watched a rugby match, which is also pretty foreign to people used to football, basketball and baseball. Sunday, we took a rafting trip down the Palmiet River and found ourselves surrounded by grassy mountains that looked like they came straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Not wanting the comparison to end there, our landlord David referred to his raft as his precious. He’s a pretty interesting guy.

We even went to a karaoke bar Saturday night, which was a first for this guy. I may or may not have sang a Backstreet Boys song. Add that to the list of best choices I’ve ever made.


Wanting it that way, with P Duff on deck in background.

Wanting it that way, with P Duff on deck in background.


We all still have a lot of things on our “To Do In South Africa” list (and on “The Best Choices Ever Made” list), and it’s important that we make sure to keep hitting points on that list. Getting used to a schedule is great and will probably help in making us feel normal in a new culture. I have a feeling, however, that continuing to try new things is what’s going to make us feel alive here.


Pat, Theresa and I prepare to beat a rapid into submission

Pat, Theresa and I prepare to beat rapids into submission


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Climb Every Mountain

July 18, 2009


Noble as an eagle

Noble as an eagle



At best, I’m reluctant to post a blog based on the title of a song from “The Sound of Music,” but when life gives you lemons…

Today we climbed Table Mountain. As far as I know it hasn’t made the cut as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but whoever decides those kinds of things should get this beauty on the list pronto. After many days of rain and planning schedules, we decided it was time to take advantage of the sunshine and celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday with good, old-fashioned Mother Nature.

Because some members of our group had climbed a few days earlier, they were set on improving on the time it took them to reach the summit. It was hard not to stop as we climbed, however, because a) climbing a mountain is tiring and b) each time we turned around, the scenery was more gorgeous than before. We each took countless photos but agreed that they couldn’t quite capture what we were seeing for ourselves.

It’s funny what a hike like that can do for your perspective. As I climbed higher and higher on the stony path, occasionally washing my face in spring water or stopping to catch the view from a patch of grass on a rock, all of the little things that had been bothering me throughout the week or even that morning seemed to drift away. All that seemed to matter in our lives during the few hours we spent at the top of the mountain was that we were there.

We enjoyed the breathtaking view of Cape Town for awhile, but it was eventually time to make the climb back down, which was surprisingly more difficult than the climb up. We played the Alphabet Movie Game (Theresa and I: 6, Ryan and Cate: 1) and then took a cab to the beach to grab a bite and watch the sunset. It seemed an appropriate way to end the day.

The group decided we should climb Table Mountain regularly, especially when we are feeling burdened or stressed by whatever else is going on in our lives. Climbing had apparently been as therapeutic for everyone else as it had been for me.

But it makes sense. I’m glad we had a chance to take in that beautiful view of Cape Town, to look out over all of the city’s buildings, the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the mountain. It was important that we took that moment to rest and appreciate how far we’d come. In the coming months, we will have a lot of mountains–proverbial and real–to climb: at our service sites, at school, in the countless other ways we’ll learn and grow, and as we explore Table Mountain’s other trails.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment…” Like today, we’ll continue to have those moments where we need to stop and take in what we’ve done and all that surrounds us. And then we’ll keep climbing.


Table Mountain

Table Mountain

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The Tourist Makes His Home

July 16, 2009

If our experience in South Africa were a honeymoon–South Africa being the bride and me being the groom, of course–this Sunday would have been the day we got back from Hawaii to find a leak in the roof and a message from the best man asking to have the toaster he gave you back so he can make Pop Tarts.

The leak in the roof part is more than symbolic; Cape Town apparently saw its largest rainfall in 52 years Sunday and in a fit of generosity, our Kimberley House roof decided to share some of the water with our kitchen floor. Thanks!

Past participants in this program told us that the first few weeks were both extremely enriching and at times frustrating. But after the first week of visiting our work sites, standing at the top of Signal Hill, planning to climb Table Mountain and experiencing some of the city’s most beautiful and captivating attractions, we may have overlooked some of the reasons we are here; namely to work and study.

The study part began to kick in this week. We have been at the University of the Western Cape each day since Monday, attending the multiple classes we signed up for and trying to find a way to build a schedule that allows for us to be on campus two days a week (we need two days for our work sites and one day for the two courses we are required to take) and classes to transfer back to Marquette. Because teachers often don’t show up for classes during the first week and the classes they do show up for are often relocated, some of us still have unanswered questions about what classes we will be able to take, what classes will transfer back to Marquette and what classes we should take to make the most of our time in Cape Town. As I pored over course schedules in the UWC Student Centre and sat in empty lecture halls only to realize that the class had been re-scheduled to a building across campus, I felt as helpless and confused as I had my first day of freshman year.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I used to think about studying abroad in South Africa, every aspect was glossed over with an unrealistic, paradise-like allure: a sun that shines perpetually, ocean waves made for surfing, exotic foreign food that always agrees with your stomach and streets made for walking barefoot. Not only does this place not exist; it isn’t why we’re here.

This is an immersion program. We’ve come to live amongst Cape Town’s citizens, not experience the city’s best attractions from the confines of a tour bus. This means going to school and our work sites, grocery shopping and cooking (which has already given me a new appreciation for what my mom does for my family every day) and balancing money, schedules and activities. None of this may sound as glamorous as sitting by the waterfront or taking safaris every day, but I doubt people who live in Hawaii surf every day either.

The funny thing is that the more we’ve begun to fall into a schedule, the more I’ve felt connected with this city. The names of stores and restaurants are becoming as commonplace as those on Marquette’s campus. We’ve made UWC friends who we spend time with off-campus. One of our housemates even joined the water polo team at UWC. A little regularity that extends beyond tourism can go a long way in making you feel at home.

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For the first time since Saturday, today saw the sun was out the whole day. It was the first sunny day since we made the transition from feeling like tourists to feeling like Cape Town regulars. One of the first things I remember hearing when we got to Cape Town was that you can experience all four seasons in a day here…warm and sunny vs. cold and rainy. You have to spend a little time in a city before you appreciate all of those dimensions: the good weather, the bad weather, the beauty of Table Mountain and the deprivation of the township shacks. Our relationship with Cape Town hasn’t yet reached the point where we’ve experienced the city at both its best and worst, and Cape Town has yet to see the best we have and our most challenging struggles. And though as far as I know I’ve never been married, the more time we spend here, the more we move past the blind satisfaction of a honeymoon and into a more wholesome appreciation and understanding in what is shaping up to be a long relationship.

Hey-oh for the metaphor?



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Get Scared

July 12, 2009
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There’s a magnet on our Cape Town fridge bearing an Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Do something every day that scares you.” It’s an encouraging reminder while in a foreign country. Because our study abroad group has had a tight schedule planned for us by our great program director Melikaya Ntshingwa, not to mention two van drivers–Pearnel and Sharkey–who get us everywhere we need to be, it would be very easy for us to experience Cape Town as winners of a radio station’s South African Tour Guide giveaway prize rather than as people actually living there.

We got one of our first tastes of self-sufficiency yesterday. After a tour planned by Melikaya, we were told that we needed to take taxis back to our house on Kimberley Road. We were down by a waterfront shopping area, so most of us opted to grab lunch and mose around before catching a cab. The great Ryan Corr and I decided to check out the statues of South Africa’s four Nobel laureates (Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela), visit a music store (I bought a CD from a South African band called Freshly Ground that Pearnel recommended) and have lunch. Witness Ryan’s glee as an indication of how good our personal pizzas were, as well as the deal we got them for (110 rand for two pints of beer = day made):



Ryan Corr is not so famished that he can't flash a grin before digging into his bargain pizza.pizza.

Ryan Corr is not so famished that he can't flash a grin before digging into his bargain pizza.

After we enjoyed said pizzas, however, we were left with the task of getting home. Most of our group had already gone back, so we approached a man working by the waterfront and asked for directions to a cab. He told us where to wait and moments later, a small van already filled with passengers arrived. We had been warned about public taxis–a likely place to be mugged–but we were not content to miss out on something that is such an entrenched part of everyday life for many South Africans.

There was a nice woman in the cab who informed us of how to pay our fare and minutes later, we were surprised to find the ride ending just a few blocks from where we had boarded. We filed out of the car and entered a bus station-like building, confused and looking conspicuously like tourists.

Luckily, the lady from the cab spotted us and asked if we knew what we were doing.


She directed us towards the upper-level of the building, where we could board a van designated for our desired location. We thanked her and did as she said. As we reached the upper-level, a man approached us and directed us towards the van headed to Observatory neighbourhood. As R Corr and I climbed in and settled into our seats, we realized Jay-Z was pumping out of the van’s sound system and knew we were going home.

In the grand scheme of things, this was no big accomplishment; we took a cab in a big city like millions of people around the world every day. But for us it felt important. We had gotten ourselves where we needed to be by way of an unfamiliar transportation system in an unfamiliar city. We will surely do things that will scare us much more in the next five months—start working at our service sites, go to a new university, bungee jump, shark dive, etc. But this didn’t seem bad for starters.

In recent days, we’ve also gained opportunities to learn about and appreciate South Africa’s unique political history. Friday we visited Parliament and were taken on a tour of the different rooms where South Africa’s legislative bodies and political groups have met before and after the apartheid era. That night, we had a block party at our house so we could introduce ourselves to our neighbors and show our house to new friends. One of these new friends is a young man called Dananai. We had heard him speak on behalf of international students at our UWC orientation a few days prior and had invited him to our party. Dananai, who is from Zimbabwe and studying law at UWC, shared his perspective on the repressive regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, as well as his views of the political situations in South Africa and the U.S. I was floored by Dananai’s insight; he referenced important events in American politics, including George W. Bush’s speeches in the days after 9/11, as well as Barack Obama’s Election Night victory speech. I felt very fortunate to listen as Dananai spoke about the challenges different countries around the world face individually and in their relations with other nations.

One of the most important political lessons we’ve begun to learn in all of this is the price some must pay for pursuing their ideals. Saturday morning, we took a boat to Robben Island, the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years incarcerated (he spent a total of 27 years in various prisons). We took a bus around the island and were shown the lime quarry where Mandela and other political prisoners worked. The highlight of the tour, however, was listening to Eddie Daniels’s account of his time at Robben Island. Daniels, also a political prisoner, was at Robben Island from 1964-1979. During this time, he told us, he became friends with Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress (Daniels was part of a different political organization). Though prison guards tried to break the spirits of the political prisoners through torture, beatings, solitary confinement and other measures, the prisoners never lost sight of their cause. If they had, South Africa very well might still be under apartheid today.

As Mr. Daniels told us stories about his time in prison—one about Nelson Mandela comforting Mr. Daniels when he was sick rather than asking a less-esteemed member of the ANC to assist him really stuck with me—I couldn’t help but wonder if I could ever be as courageous as the countless people who fought against apartheid were. As Mr. Daniels pointed out, even some of the people who benefited from apartheid’s unjust structure were willing to turn their backs on their privilege simply because it was the right thing to do. My situation in life has put me in such a position that should I ever be faced with as great a moral decision as apartheid presented, I would probably be in the privileged group who could very easily turn away from the problem and continue enjoying the benefits class, race or creed.

I like to think that I wouldn’t do that. I know that I would be really frightened at the prospect of turning away from immediate but immoral privilege towards a just yet uncertain future. Nelson Mandela acknowledged such uncertainty when he said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Some days the scariest thing you have to do is take a cab in a foreign country for the first time. But other days, we are presented with tough moral choices that terrify us. They may seem insignificant in relation to what South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists went through, but they often require courage and are more important than we realize. I figure if people like Eddie Daniels and Nelson Mandela could sustain years of unjust imprisonment, stand firm with their people in the face of a cruel government, and peacefully guide their country towards freedom, the rest of us can at least strive to do the right thing when those relatively small moral questions come up in our lives.


Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell.




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I Ate An Ostrich And I Liked It

July 9, 2009
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Pat the Loyola Student, Charlie the Roommate, Cate the English Major, and Me the 3rd Place Finisher in the Pier Elementary School Spelling Bee stand above beautiful Cape Town.

Pat the Loyola Student, Charlie the Roommate, Cate the English Major, and Me the 3rd Place Finisher in the Pier Elementary School Spelling Bee stand above beautiful Cape Town.

Day 5 in Cape Town. We’re just about used to steering wheels on the right sides of the cars that drive on the left side of the road. Calculating the rand to dollar rate doesn’t take quite as long as it did earlier in the week. Apparently, it will be up to 10 or 11 rand to a U.S. dollar by September, which means I won’t be as conservative in deciding whether or not I’m going to buy Go-Gurt at the Pick ‘n Pay grocery store in our Observatory neighbourhood.

We continued visiting service sites today after a two day hiatus at the University of the Western Cape, where we will be taking classes. Tuesday was tentative class registration, which wasn’t necessarily the nightmare described to us by former participants in this program. Nonetheless, it wasn’t like signing up for classes at Marquette. We were encouraged to sign up for more classes than we plan to take, then attend those classes and ask the professors which days they will be offered. They could be offered one of the days written on the weekly schedule, multiple days written on the schedule, or none of the days if a small number of people sign up. Apparently, professors sometimes decide to cancel class without e-mailing students in said class. Looking forward to that.

With a full two days of hindsight, however, it wasn’t a bad lesson to learn. Though it wasn’t the registration process any of us were used to, it taught us that we will have to be flexible and adjust the ways we approach our learning. It seems that South Africans don’t look at school in terms of the tight schedule as we are used to–this time to that time, however many days a week. Rather, it is fluid and subject to change. Maybe this will suit some of us more in five months’ time.

We also had the opportunity to attend an international students’ orientation. There, we listened to the leaders of student organizations, a humorous professor involved with international students, a stirring account of a young man living with HIV, and the UWC rector, a South African/Irishman called Brian O’Connell. Starting his speech by quoting Bob Dylan immediately won him some healthy points in the Brian Harper’s Points For People Who Quote Bob Dylan Fund. Mr. O’Connell’s at-the-same-time funny and poignant remarks seemed to acknowledge what Franklin Roosevelt called our generations’ rendezvous with destiny. He addressed apartheid, environmental issues, and even human conflict. He invited those of who are white to consider if black Africans had arrived at North America and taken over our land and livelihoods. It wasn’t an indictment; rather, it was an encouragement to acknowledge a foreign perspective. I think Mr. O’Connell all inspired us in his charge to rise to the challenges that our world and history have presented us with.

Like I said, we visited some sites today, including the one I’ll be working at with Nora Kennelly, another student on our trip. It’s called the Amy Biehl Foundation. It was founded by the family of Amy Biehl, a young American woman who was doing social justice-type work in South Africa when she was murdered near the end of the apartheid era. In a remarkable act of forgiveness, Amy’s mother Linda advocated for her daughter’s four killers being granted amnesty for their political crime. Today, one of the killers works for the foundation and is friends with Linda. At the foundation, which works to develop school programs for South African students, I expect to work on a literacy program, as well as possibly teach guitar lessons. I might be able to buy a guitar for 300 rand, which is less than $40 U.S. I don’t remember if it was Henry David Thoreau or Borat who said, “Very nice,” but in terms of the low price for a guitar, I definitely know what they were talking about.

We’ve been very lucky to have some time to soak in the city’s culture and sights. Today, we drove to the summit of a hill overlooking the entire city (see picture above) and then had lunch in a more tourist-y area, where we learned about the possibility of shark diving. Dive we will.

I’ve also included a picture summing up our experience with traditional South African food. Our program director, Melikaya, treated us to a Xhosa dinner. Xhosa is the ethnic group that Melikaya and former South African President Nelson Mandela are part of. As Melikaya told us of some Xhosa traditions, we ate sheep intestine (meh) and ostrich (if you like steak, you’ll like this bird). The one thing we were all told we must try was the African beer that the Xhosa use at cultural ceremonies. We passed a container that looked like an open bowling ball around the table. It was a little bitter and most of us agreed that we prefer beverages from the Western world. But on the second or third pass around the table, we started getting used to the taste. Though we are a ways from being comfortable and acclimated with the food, culture, people and city of Cape Town, we’re starting to get used to that taste, too.

Can I get a hey-oh for the metaphor?


Goblet of Fire

Goblet of Fire



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What do Sylvester Stallone, Ryan Corr and South Africa have in common?

July 6, 2009



I was going to celebrate anyway. July 6 is the birthday of Sylvester Stallone, Ryan Corr and 50 Cent, so I was going to do what I always do that day: watch Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, run up the longest set of stairs I could find in Fond du Lac, WI and watch at least four of the six Rocky movies. And then call Ryan to watch all of the Rambo movies.

But then I found out that that would be my first full day in South Africa for Marquette’s Service Learning in Cape Town program and suddenly, the Italian Stallion didn’t seem so important.

Along with 19 other Marquette and Loyola students, I set out for Cape Town from Chicago on July 3. This moment was the arrival of what for some of had been in the works for years. The essence of the program is that students take courses at the University of the Western Cape and the Institute of Social Development while also working at an internship two days a week through our Leaders in Grassroots Organization class. Through these classes, the internship and our experiences living in a new culture, we are to learn about South Africa and Cape Town’s unique history and people while also gaining an appreciation for the challenges that the country has had to overcome and continue to face.

The half of the group I traveled to Cape Town with arrived around 9 a.m. July 5, following the other part of our group who had arrived the day before. We had just had an exhausting 36 hours of travel: a tube ride into London during our layover, a meal at a tavern, a parade, efforts to sleep over the wail of a determined German baby, reading, journaling, and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Though we were tired, there was no time for sleep once we arrived. Our program director Melikaya and our academic advisor Dr. Ellen Eckman picked us up at the airport. I was sans a piece of luggage thanks to British Airways but had been given 35 pounds for the trouble. I just hope the bag comes before the block party we’re having Friday night. The sausage and jelly beans I packed won’t do much good flying over the Atlantic.

After some preliminary business with Melikaya and Dr. Eckman, we opted to go to the beach. Though it is winter in South Africa, we experienced unseasonably warm weather at about 70 degrees. We were able to play frisbee on the beach, wade ankle-deep in the Atlantic and experience fine local cuisine at oceanfront restaurants. Major props to Pat Duffey for swimming in the ocean. What a guy.

We celebrated Ryan’s birthday because part of my tradition had to live on and then, we rose early July 6 to visit the U.S. Consulate’s Office to hear about the political situation in South Africa, the racial and class struggles the country still faces 15 years after the end of apartheid, and ask questions of the U.S. State Dept. employees. After this, we drove through South African townships to visit some of the sites that some of us will be working at for our internships. Though we had seen the shacks that many South Africans live in when we drove from the airport, we were now able to drive up close and see the people stand outside of homes that no one should have to live in. Many of us have lived in Milwaukee and Chicago and have seen poverty in our hometowns. But for some reason this seemed different. Maybe we had simply become used to it at home.

That’s not to say, however, that South Africa fits the stereotypes that we tried to get rid of in our African History class at Marquette. No, we aren’t living in huts in a jungle. We also aren’t doing charity work in a Third World country. Though we are here partly with the purpose of learning about the difficulties South Africa faces–high AIDS rates, people still greatly divided 15 years after the end of apartheid, and poverty–we also know that even the world’s most developed countries have problems with racial and ethnic division and poverty. We are also here to celebrate 

The highlight of the day, however, was visiting the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. There, we got to learn about the organization’s purpose and the work of Archbishop Tutu while also listening to welcoming remarks from Judy Mayotte. Ms. Mayotte is one of those people who leaves you in awe after meeting them. She started the Service Learning in South Africa program in 2005 and is therefore responsible for our group being here. She also is an advocate for refugees and lost a leg in the Sudan for her cause. As she asked each of us to introduce ourselves and had some connection with each of our stories–i.e. she had once lived in our home town or had received an honorary degree from a university there–I realized that this is a woman who has lived her life to the fullest. I look forward to when we will have lunch at her home in a few months.

The rest of the day was spent visiting our work sites, exchanging dollars for the South African currency rand, going to a restaurant on Melikaya’s generous treat, and preparing to register for UWC classes tomorrow.

It’s only our second day here, so it is hard to sum up any defining moments. Everything that we’ve done and has happened as been touched by an I-can’t-believe-we’re-here feeling. We all feel very fortunate and excited for what lies ahead in the first five months. For me, I think that feeling kicked in a few hours before our flight from London to Cape Town landed. I had just woken up, checked the status of our flight on the plane’s video maps, and felt an overwhelming sense of peace after realizing that the wailing German baby was asleep. As I turned to look out the plane’s window, I saw the most brilliant orange sunrise beginning to ferment along the horizon. A sunrise observed from above the clouds. As we prepared to land from South African skies, I knew we were arriving in a place we’d soon call home.

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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.