Feathered Aspen


Feathered Aspen

While not quite ready for the big reveal (we’re new parents, and figuring out WordPress is tricky), Joshua and I have decided to form a new blog together with our own URL. It’s not in working order yet (the tabs are all messed up, and lots needs editing), but I’ve imported most of the posts from A Carpetbagger’s Tale to this website.

I think I’m ready for this change. Although I haven’t been as faithful a blogger as I was when we were traveling, A Carpetbagger’s Tale has been such a huge part of my life. I want to share the joy of sharing with the rest of my family – with Joshua and Lily – and I can’t think of a better way to do it than this.

We’ve entitled our new blog “Feathered Aspen” in honor of our totems and our new home. We mean to express and sense of rootedness and a sense of flight. Of adventure and of home. Go to featheredaspen.com to read about Lily’s labor, and as we find more time, the stories of our first days as parents.

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What’s a Carpetbagger?

Ok. I don’t want to insult any one’s intelligence, but I also know that some people have no idea:

After the Civil War, the South was devastated. In an effort to rebuild and to take advantage of economic opportunities, Yankees moved South to engage in reconstruction. These enterprising Northerners packed up their things in big carpet bags and moved down South full of grand hopes and dreams. But, as you might expect, the Southerners were not all that impressed, and the Yankees were a little confused when their Northern sensibilities didn’t carry quite the same currency South of the Mason Dixon Line.

In the end, most of the Yanks tucked tail and returned back home, but ever since, they’ve been known as the carpetbaggers. The sentiment is not necessarily nice, but it is clever because it carries the double entendre of their transient stay. I use the term tongue-in-cheek, but I’m also aware of the many parallels that can be drawn between their journey and mine.

In many ways, I moved South thinking that I could swoop in and make things better. It was arrogant, and I quickly learned the error of my ways. While I wasn’t trying to take advantage of some great economic opportunity, I think many people were suspicious of my motives, and I sensed that this was a suspicion surrounding not only my origins, but also my educational pedigree (if you can call it that!), my youth, and my race. To be fair, it makes a lot of sense, and I don’t really fault anyone for their suspicion.

And then, of course, I left. I wish it didn’t sound so fickle, but it’s the truth. I have other reasons for leaving, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the biggest reason is this: I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t much help at all, and once I finished my commitment, I packed up my carpetbag and went traveling. It would have been easy to stay if I could have seen the differences I made and how much I was needed, but it was so much harder when I saw so little change. Kudos to those who found it in themselves to stay, and in particular, I’m thinking of those veterans who teach year after year, and also, Philip, Joey, and Claire, three of my friends who stayed on to teach another year and perhaps more. They’re no carpetbaggers; they’re modern heroes.

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Parenthood, Global Warming, and Post-Colonialism

Naum Gabo, Linear Construction No. 2, 1949

Location: The Kuhne Household, Shoreview, Minnesota.

Exchange: E. and his son, A., came to visit while Joshua and I were at the Kuhnes. The two are from Denver, Colorado, and E. knows my dad through their work as Professors and with Public Achievement. When it came time to select Arty Calling Cards, I chose Linear Construction No. 2 and It Is Man. I love the simple yet almost musical pattern in each image, and the F. family struck me as a modern, progressive household worthy of the best that Gabo and Kapoor have to offer.

Characterization: I’m beginning to think that characterizing the recipients of my Arty Calling Cards is not feasible nor fair. For the people I know and love, it’s easy; but for those I’ve just met, I think anecdotes may have to suffice. The two that come to mind for E. are about growing up and Muhammed Ali.

E. is a lovely father: he’s attentive to A. and seems to derive real joy from watching his son interact with the world. The morning after Joshua and I arrived, E. shared with us a fatherly realization: children grow up. This is a well-known fact, and yet, it’s only when we see mothers and fathers with their grown or almost grown children that it really makes sense. A. uses E. as a jungle gym and a safety net all at once. When I’m good, I call home once every other week. The contrast is startling and scary, and I am empathetic. I love my family, and yet I left. I continue to leave. That’s what children do; but I’m also aware that I haven’t made things easy for my parents. I’ve lived and traveled far away, and my calls home are infrequent and spotty at best. I mentioned this, and I’m afraid I may have made E.’s heart sink a little bit more. If I may offer a consolation now, let me say that I always come home, and homecoming is always sweet.

The second anecdote is one E. told. Once upon a time, E. attended a conference. In the middle of a lecture, Muhammed Ali entered the auditorium and began performing magic tricks; having lost his faculty of speech, Mr. Ali chose instead to communicate through magic. One day, during the same conference, E. stepped into the elevator. As chance would have it, the glamorous Mr. Ali joined him. E. stuttered something admiring and unintelligible; Mr. Ali calmly, serenely nodded his head in ascent. E. felt as though he had been blessed.

Maurice Denis, Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle, 1897

Location: David’s Graduation Party, The Collette Household, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Exchange: Mike and his mother, Ina, drove down from Mora, Minnesota to attend David’s Graduation Party. I have fond memories of both Mike and Ina from growing up, and I’m always happy to see them. For a while, Mike was going to be my step-father and I guess Ina would have been my step-grandma, but now they just have the distinction of being some of my favorite people. I knew right away which Arty Calling Cards to select: the Portrait of Yvonne for Ina, and Wild Cattle at Chillingham for Mike.

Characterization: Ina is a rare treasure: not only is she a elderly country woman, but she is also open-minded. Although I don’t know her as well as I wish I did, I am always struck by her compassionate and kind nature. She’s both interested and smart, and before I went off to New Orleans to teach, she sent me Jonathon Kozol’s new book. I have a feeling that she knew what I was getting into, even if I didn’t. The Portrait of Yvonne is perfect for a woman as beautiful and kind and calm as Ina.

Anish Kapoor, Installation: It is Man

Location: The Kuhne Household, Shoreview, Minnesota.

Exchange: A. also received an Arty Calling Card, and after this four year old recounted Hindu mythology to us at the dinner table, I knew he had to have the Arty Calling Card of an Indian genius.

Characterization: A. also has two anecdotes. After a long day playing with Eamon, watching baseball, and meeting new people, little A. was tired and overstimulated. As E. put him to bed that night, he admitted that he felt a little “out of control.” Hearing about this exchange later, we were all impressed by his self-awareness. The second story is just as startling and precious in its maturity: A. woke up late after a few of us had gone running, and he padded upstairs to find Joshua at the dining room table. He came up to Joshua and said, “you need to close the door because of Global Warming. I did it for you this time, but you have to do it next time.”

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, Wild Cattle of Chillingham, 1867

Location: David’s Graduation Party, The Collette Household, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Characterization: The first time Joshua met Mike, Mike was wearing sooty coveralls, his face was covered in ash, and his hair looked as if it had been electrocuted. I introduced the two, and it seemed to me that Mike’s handshake could have swallowed Joshua whole. This full-time farmer, part-time DNR man, and sometime fire fighter is one of my favorites.

Sir Jacques-Laurent Agasse, The Nubian Giraffe, 1827

Location: David’s Graduation Party, The Collette Household, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Exchange: I was sitting on the couch amidst a sea of Gundersons when Fadia and her husband, Yusuf, walked into David’s Graduation Party. My mom introduced Joshua and I to the two of them, and Fadia and I hit it off right away.

Characterization: Yusuf and Fadia moved to the United States in 1968 to attend University. Although they had intended to return to Jerusalem, political unrest prevented them, and Yusuf found work with the University of Minnesota. Since then, they’ve become citizens, but they remain active in the Palestinian community. My mom met Fadia when she attended a lecture on peace in the Middle East, and they’ve been friends ever since. Besides their international origins, Yusuf and Fadia are avid travellers, and have many stories about their adventures abroad. Once Fadia and I started talking, we covered quite a bit of territory: my tattoos, art, imperialism, and post-colonialism. It was during this last topic that I mentioned Edward Said, who I read while I was writing my Art History thesis. Fadia looked surprised and asked me if I had found him easy to understand. I laughed and said that he was every bit as dense as Foucault or Derrida. Fadia smiled and said, “I met him once. He’s Palestinian, you know, and he came to my house. He was so handsome, and when I went to serve him his tea, my hands were shaking with the tray.”

So, yeah. Fadia is a big deal. She’s super cool, and she’s met Edward Said. Naturally, I had to give her my only Orientalist Arty Calling Card.



One of these days I’ll have to post a family tree, but until then, here’s the quick and dirty version (a family scrub, if you will): once upon a time, Tim and Yvonne were married. The two had Sarah and Joshua, and then they divorced. Then, Yvonne married Dave and they went on to adopt a gazillion animals. Shortly thereafter, Tim married Joette, and Guy, Joette’s son, became Sarah and Joshua’s step-brother. In a town not too far away, Michael and Eunice got hitched, too. They had Ellie, and then they got divorced. After a while, Eunice had David, and Ellie had her first baby brother. Her next two siblings appeared after Michael married Mandy and they had Hannah and Eamon. One day, Joshua sat next to Ellie on the school bus, and the rest is history.

So, basically, the As, Wexeldorfers, Kuhnes, Gundersons, Podgorskis, and Rolls got together and did their very best interpretation of the modern family tree. Despite a little grafting and pruning along the way, this family scrub is getting along just fine. We even have dinner parties. We really are a picture of gardening collaboration and reconciliation. The only difficulty occurs when Joshua and I return to Minnesota. Too avoid ruffled feathers (leaves! Ok. I’m done with the metaphor.), we plan an extensive itinerary before we arrive, and evenly split our hours between the four homes.

First, we landed in River Falls. Yvonne and Dave moved to the country about four years ago now, and since then, they’ve managed to accumulate six goats, four dogs, three cats, two llamas, and nearly 100 chickens. A significant contingent of this menagerie is named after characters in the TV show, LOST. For example, the two guard dogs are named Desmond and Jacob, and the goats are named Charlie, Mr. Echo, Jack, Sawyer, Saiid, and Hurley. The back yard is a complex system of animal shelters, coops, chicken wire, and wooden fencing. Amid the grass, garden, and trees, the animals gallop, trot, and generally roll about to their hearts’ content. Watching the mayhem from the comfort of a swinging chair on the deck, I am struck by an overwhelming feeling of mammalian contentedness. There is something profound and beautiful here. I don’t know who’s more blessed: the animals for having been adopted, or Yvonne and Dave for the constant outpouring of animal love and gratitude. These animals get to run and play and snort around in the dirt, and they are so loved. I wish all animals could experience this mixture of freedom, safety, and family, and I wish all humans could experience the simple pleasures of caring for and being loved by animals. I never lose my wonder over love’s ability to transcend species. Whether fowl or four-legged, each is capable of giving and receiving affection and protection. They love the simple pleasures of a human’s touch and soft words. They listen. They’re mischievous, and they’re loyal. Every single one has different personality.

Besides supervising the feeding and sleeping of the animals and ourselves, Joshua and I spent our time at Yvonne and Dave’s reading. Yvonne is the craft-master extraordinaire, and as such, she has a weakness for DIY, cooking, knitting, crafting, and thrifting magazines. These are the glossy mags I can read from cover to cover. I have an endless fascination for recycled furniture, cheapie interior design tricks, and cleverly repurposed items. In short, I spent almost every waking moment reading about the miracles of primer, paint, and flea markets.

When I wasn’t fantasizing about our very own hodge-podge hobby farm, we were hiking and biking over the hills and through the woods. Joshua has already accused me of trying to kill him with a workout regimen, and I have now officially resumed the alias, Mao Tze Tung. Don’t worry. It’s good for him.

On Wednesday, we packed our bags and set off for Michael and Mandy’s (the Kuhnes). Along the way, we stopped to buy me a pair of sandals. Unfortunately, my beloved Birkenstocks had just recently met their untimely end. A couple weeks ago, we were doggy sitting, and the smell of real leather seduced the poor puppy. Everyone involved was quite sad, but I am now the proud new owner of Chacos! I love them, love them, love them.

At Michael and Mandy’s, we chatted and ate to our hearts’ content, and when we got bored, we went for little runs. On Friday, Joshua went off to perform groomsmanly duties for his best friend, Brian, and I had a chance to run and reconnect with one of my biffle’s, JJ. Later, I got all gussied up and left for the wedding. Traffic was horrible, and we tip-toed in somewhere near the “I dos.” I stifled my disappointment and prepared for an exciting reception, but Joshua met us at the door, clutching his belly and eyes all bloodshot. Apparently, a nasty case of food poisoning had found him somewhere near the middle of the wedding ceremony, and he had barely made it to the toilet in time to vomit and poop himself silly. In the end, it was over before it had even begun, and we went home to sleep off a tummy whumpus. Joshua is devastated, and we shall speak no more on the matter.

On Saturday morning, we woke up, ran, and ate breakfast with the fam, and then we headed over to my mom’s (Eunice). Once we arrived, we leapt into party preparations. David just graduated high school, and his open house was to be later that afternoon. My mom, of course, had whipped up salads and snacks out of nothing at all, and with a little help from her sister and friends, the apartment was an oasis of good food and colorful tributes to David. We spent the rest of the day catching up with family we haven’t seen since the wedding and meeting new friends.

After the last guests left, we headed out to the Stone Arch Bridge with Marlon, Julie, Lauren, and David. As the sun was setting, we walked across the bridge and were treated to a lovely view of the Mill Park Ruins, the new Mill Museum, and the Guthrie Theater. Up river, the falls rushed between other bridges and trees, and down river, the new 35W bridge joined the banks of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s surreal to think that this is the same river I photographed just a week ago, a thousand miles away.

This morning, Mom, Joshua, and I drove over to Minnehaha Falls to work out, and Joshua and I decided that we have truly arrived in another world. Here, on a Sunday morning in the middle of the summer, there are cyclists, runners, walkers, and roller blade-ers galore. People whip by in their synthetic fibers, sweat bands, and iPods, and for the first time in a while, we felt a sense of belonging. Nobody even looked at us too strangely when we stopped and kicked our butts in a move that Joshua likes to call a “burpee.”

Tonight, were headed over to one of the family scrub dinner parties, and then we only have four more days until we leave for London. I’ve had a number of requests for new posts, and I hope to get to all of them, but for now we’re in the midst of last-minute preparations. More to come soon 🙂


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The Gift of Gab

Amedeo Modigliani, Nude, 1916

Location: The Kuhne house on Cobb Road in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Exchange: When I was growing up, the dining room table was pretty much the center of the home. I did homework here, ate here, and all important arguments were settled here. For just such occasions, we have a little bookshelf within easy reach: The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes, and the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, if one happens to be short on time. That’s right. Etymology, linguistics, pronunciation, and usage… It’s all fair game at the Kuhne household. Spice it up with colloquialisms from England and rural Minnesota, and you’ve got a regular hotbed of semantic and syntactic contention. Anyway. We’re at the dining room table. We’re eating, and I’ve selected Josef Beuys’ Felt Suit (don’t ask me why; maybe because they’re both descendants of Eastern Europeans?), Jean-Etienne Liotard’s The Chocolate Pot (do I really need to explain?), and Amedeo Modigliani’s Nude. Mandy, claiming to be an ignoramus, chose Modigliani. Clearly, no one is fooled. The woman has excellent taste.

Characterization: This fierce-willed Brit gave me the gift of gab, and as for who gave me my stubborn determination, she’s certainly one of the culpable parties. When I was a teenager our unbudgeable traits looked a little like bull-fighting, but since then we’ve set our horns and teasing capes aside. We can talk for hours, and I always come away feeling just a little bit smarter than I was going in. For the rest of ya’ll, Mandy can be found quelling the fears and frustrations of academia, running marathons, and gettin’ shit done. In short, she’s what every teenage girl really needs: a woman role model with mission, conviction, and a deft hand.

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Could Be The Poet

Giorgio de Chirico, The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913

Location: The Kuhne house on Cobb Road in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Exchange: Joshua and I left Yvonne and Dave’s yesterday and drove to the Kuhne’s. It wasn’t until we were half a mile from home that I realized that we were driving behind the Kuhne van. It will please everyone involved to know that the identifying characteristic of the van in question is a bumper sticker that says, “We Run.” Anyway, I honked the horn obnoxiously, and we waved back forth through rear view mirrors and such until we were home and ready for a round of hugs. Later that night – sitting at the dining room table over a plate of garden fresh greens – I broke out the Arty Calling Cards. I sorted through my unwieldy stack and selected Summer by Arcimboldo and The Uncertainty of the Poet by de Chirico. Dad considered the selections, and although Summer is a very Arty rendition of food consciousness, he’s a poet, and well, he has a weakness for Surrealism. (I know you were hoping for Rene Magritte, but dad, Ceci n’est pas une pipe? I mean, really. Next, you’ll be asking for some dada.)

Characterization: Michael Kuhne is my dad. As the first to follow my blog and number one commenter, he’s also my number one fan. If anyone thinks I should and could write for a living, it’s him. He taught me how to write, and he’s been reading ever since. While all this sounds very nostalgic and sweet, Mandy can attest to the melodrama and misery that was Ellie learning how to write. Kudos to Dad for finding the patience; my personal search for a thesis, an argument, and some heart was not a voyage for the weak or meek of will and mind. Not to carry the metaphor too far, but he taught me like the fabulous teacher he is: he gave me the sails and the map, but then gave me the wheel. So, if you’re reading this and you picture Socrates or maybe Robin Williams in Goodwill Hunting, you’ve got it about right. My dad’s been in the classroom kickin’ ass and takin’ names since before I was born, and I’m lucky enough to call him my dad.

P.S. The title is Bruce Cockburn. My dad’s allegiance to this musician is so undying that I pretty much associate them with one another: Dad, Bruce, Bruce, Dad. Same diff. In another tangential note, the song that my dad and I danced to at my wedding was called Fascist Architecture, and it was by the Bruce. Although that particular title may call to mind pod-like apartments carved out of monolithic blocks of cement, the last stanza says it all:

Gonna tell my old lady
Gonna tell my little girl
There isn’t anything in the world
That can lock up my love again