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Oct 10, 2019

Sermon: The Unnamable All

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 6, 2019

I am a Yankee. Living in Houston has made this aspect of my identity abundantly clear. I move through the world in distinctively non-Texan ways. I do not wear cowboy boots. I cannot two-step. I do not own a car. I root for neither the Houston Texans nor the Dallas Cowboys--though we have been here long enough that Asa is a fan of the Astros and the Rockets. And probably most disconcerting for many of the Texans I have met; I do not eat meat. Barbecue is not part of my regular routine.

Part of my recognition of my own Yankee nature has come from what I might describe as my general sense of disorientation as I wander through the Houston landscape. I grew up in Michigan. I studied in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I am used to different trees, different flowers, and different rivers. But most importantly, I am used to different mushrooms.

You might not know that one of my great passions is foraging for mushrooms. Stick me in a Northeastern forest for a few hours sometime between the beginning of May and the end of October and I am liable to walk out with several pounds of edible mushrooms. Morels--black, yellow, and grey--, chanterelles--flaming red or colored like egg yolk--, oysters, dryad’s saddles, gem studded and giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, reishi, I know them all.

In Texas, I find myself uncertain in my identification of local mushroom species. There are mushrooms here that look deceptively similar to some that I eat confidently up North. They grow throughout the Museum District and in Herman Park. They have red caps and yellow stalks. They are plump, firm to the touch, solid all the way through and have pores rather than gills on the underside. They look and smell exactly like bicolor boletes--a highly prized delicacy quite similar in taste to porcinis.

Imagine my delight when, shortly after I moved here, I found dozens of these mushrooms growing around our building. Of course, I picked a number and brought them back to my office, with the intention of cooking them up that evening.

Unfortunately, the mushrooms were not bicolor boletes. Now, this not a tale of mushroom poisoning. There’s a saying among foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” I practice an abundance of caution when it comes to mushrooms. And so, when I got back to my office I started fiddling with the mushrooms. They began to stain blue. That is a bad sign. Bicolor boletes do not stain blue. I could not positively identify them. One guidebook indicated that they might be lurid boletes. Those are edible but only grow in Europe. Another suggested that they might be boletus speciosus. Those are not found in the South. In a third they appeared to be a variety of devil’s boletes. But those smell unpleasant and these had a pleasant odor.

In the end, I decided that since I couldn’t completely figure out what they were I better not eat them. It was a disheartening experience. It made me feel disconnected, or even alienated, from the land. Normally, my knowledge of mushrooms helps me to feel connected to it.

The experience is one that I have been ruminating on over the last few weeks as we have been exploring the theme of disruption and three of the great crises of the hour. You might recall, that in worship this year we are exploring how we might develop some of the religious resources and spiritual practices to help us in the work of confronting the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the assault on democracy.

The roots of all three of these crises lie in disconnection or alienation. Many people in this country are alienated from the Earth and alienated from each other. The climate crisis has been created because many of us no longer understand that we are people of the Earth. As the planet goes, so goes the human species. The poet Joy Harjo offers us wise counsel when she enjoins us to:

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.

I had a taste of that alienation when I found myself unable to properly identify one of the local mushrooms. One of the principal reasons I love mushroom foraging is it helps me to feel connected to, and a part of, the earth whose skin I am.

Sometimes my experiences in the North are a bit like this: I walk the woods and ramble the riverbanks looking for signs of mushrooms. It is midsummer. There has been rain. Not yesterday, the day before. It is supposed to be chanterelle season. Slow growing, densely fleshed, chanterelles have symbiotic relationships with oak trees. They entwine themselves with the roots and share nutrients creating a network of enmeshed fungi and living wood that can stretch for acres.

My eyes are scouring the leaf litter for signs of wrinkled yellow or red caps. Nothing. I walk for another hour, drifting towards that stand of ancient oak or trying my luck nearer the edge of a shallow stream. Nothing. And then, at the edge of my vision, I see a hint of yellow. I investigate. I look down and there’s a mushroom. I look up and suddenly I see hundreds of beautiful fruiting bodies. They range from tiny buttons to unfolding fractal caps the size of my fist. It is as if I have been invited to be a part of the network of mycelium and root mass that runs through the forest. In moments like that I feel part of the Earth, creation, the unnamable all of existence which we might choose to call God or name the sacred and the divine.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.

In the liberal theological tradition, of which Unitarian Universalism is one of the boldest expressions, God is understood to be the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described this experience as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” This feeling of connection is at the root of what it means to be religious. The feeling of connection comes first. The words we use to describe it come later. The feeling is universal. It comes from being embodied creatures, traversing a world on which we are dependent. The words we use to describe this feeling are bound by the particularities of culture and tradition.

Contemporary Schleiermacher scholar and Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes the dynamic this way: “The first word that comes to mind to refer to this feeling of absolute dependence--for Christians... is God... For Buddhists, the first word might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.”

The feeling is universal. The words are particular. And our society’s alienation from this unnamable mystery is at the root of the climate crisis. We use words to describe the universal. Words can separate us from each other and our experience of connection. Human and Earth... We can describe ourselves as something other than creatures of the planet. We can pretend it is possible to escape the consequences of our habits of burning fossil fuels, filling the ocean with plastic, and despoiling lands. We use words and begin to imagine this experience of connection to be an experience of disconnection, disembodiment.

We use words and we get caught up in doctrinal differences. Theist versus humanist. Unitarian Christian versus pagan. Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist... We use words and create cleavages between religious communities.  The techno musician “Mad” Mike Banks once described the dynamic this way: “categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation.”

In what remains the sermon, I want to suggest a few strategies you might use to cultivate your sense of connection, move beyond words, and overcome alienation. Think of these as spiritual practices that might aid you in fostering a sense of connection during these times of dislocation and crisis.

I offer them with insights from the German Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent scholars of mysticism. He came to understand that humans develop our senses of identity in relation to the other. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” are some his most famous words.

It is only through a connection with someone or something else that we come to know ourselves. Buber called this experience I-Thou. I-Thou is an experience of pure being. I-Thou occurs when we cease to treat something or someone as an ends to a means. We view them not for their utility or use. Instead, we feel enveloped in the other, dependent, joined with, linked to them. Buber wrote, “He is no longer He or She [or They], limited by other Hes and Shes [and Theys], a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.” In some moments, we experience other beings as “seamless” and discover that “everything else lives in [their] light.” Buber’s language is difficult, poetic, dense, and hard to decipher. This is because language fails such experiences. They are experiences and not ideas. Experiences and not words. Yet, sometimes, we can find hints of such experiences in scriptures and sermon, poetry and luminous prose. One is evoked in denise levertov’s masterful poem “The Cat as Cat:”

           Likewise   
flex and reflex of claws
gently pricking through sweater to skin
gently sustains their own tune,
not mine. I-Thou, cat, I-Thou.

“I-Thou, cat, I-Thou,” the words only conjure. But yet, I ask you, have you ever had such moments of connection with another being? A pet? A family member? A lover? A friend? A complete stranger? For me they open up when my cat lies on my lap and sings his cat song, when I get enthusiastic hugs from my children, when I sit beneath the foggy city stars and grasp for words to fill a conversation with a friend, when I dance and lose myself in the breaker’s circle or connect soul-to-soul with a tango partner, and when I lie at the salt water’s edge and hear the backwash drag across sand.

Such moments of connection provide, in Buber’s understanding, linkage to God, the grand mystery of the universe. Now, I recognize that God is a word that makes many Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Many of us like to label ourselves atheists, agnostics, and humanists and reject God. It is all words and words divide and fail to describe the indescribable, the unnamable, that I experience, and I suspect you do as well, when I feel connected to something greater than myself.

Sometimes, in my work as a minister, I will have people come to me expressing hesitation about joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They do not believe in God, they will tell me, and therefore, they think, they cannot be part of a liberal religious community. I draw upon advice from the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church and ask them, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. Chances are, I do not believe in that God either.”

We Unitarian Universalists often get too caught up in what theologians call the via negativa. We love to talk about what God is not and express disbelief. God is not an old white man with a beard in the sky. God is not a vengeful deity angrily coming to smite those who have strayed from rigid doctrine. God is not a being that hates anyone who fails to fit into the all too tidy box of heteronormativity. God is none of these things.

What I am suggesting this morning is that one of the religious practices that we can go back, root ourselves in, in times of crisis is to pursue the via postiva. Here Forrest Church offered us advice, “God is not God's name,” he told us. “God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable.” God is present when we feel connected to, and not separated from, the blue green ball of a planet and the great family of all souls of which we are each but a part.

Martin Buber suggested that there were three ways we might encounter this experience of pure being, which he was unafraid to call God. We can find it, first, through nature. Second, through other beings--people and animals. And third, through art.

I offered my experience as a mushroom hunter as an example of finding the sense of connection in nature. Such episodes are important. They remind us that we are dependent upon, not separate from, this planet which is in ecological crisis. You might find them walking through the woods, strolling along a bayou, or rooting in the soil while you work your garden. Maybe you might even find it simply by gazing at a tree, as Buber himself once did. Reflecting on what he felt while communing with a tree he wrote, “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars.”

We can also find the experience of connection with other beings, human and animal. And here I could offer many examples--some rooted in wordless intimacies and others in ecstatic conversations. Holding a newborn baby, grasping the hand of a dying loved one, singing in community, sharing a well-crafted meal, silently coordinating together as we work to refurbish a house, the litany could continue endlessly, could continue as long as we could find new permutations of relation. Buber, denise levertov, and I all apparently find the experience in our cats. Buber wrote, “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat” in the midst of an eloquent passage on his theology of relation.

And finally, there is what Buber called “spiritual beings.” Here he meant not angels or demons but rather art and knowledge. These are things created by human beings that draw other human beings into the realm of I-Thou. To truly gain knowledge, and to understand another’s knowledge, we need be present entirely to what we are attempting to learn. We have to connect to it and let its patterns unfold before us. As an undergraduate I earned a degree in physics. I remember a sense of awe and wonder that would come as I puzzled through line after line of confusing equations. Suddenly, sometimes, the solution would appear--five, six, seven lines in--an expression that represented the classical mechanics of pulleys or the way light bent as it traversed through a series of lenses. It was like a flash that illuminated our relation to the ground of being--which there I might have called the laws of science.

I have long since forsaken my scientific studies. These days I am much more likely to experience connection through art. Have you ever had the experience of being completed subsumed by a piece of art? Where the work opened up a depth of emotion for you that blotted out everything around you? Some afternoon following service I invite you to go down the block and visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Pick a piece, preferably in a quiet side gallery where you are not likely to be interrupted. I might suggest František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale.” It is found on the second floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, in the European painting section.

Commit to spending three minutes looking at the piece. One minute from far away, one minute a bit closer, and the final minute as close you can get. Three minutes can be a long time to look at a piece of art and in that time in might start to open itself up to you. Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” appears to be a self-portrait. The artist reclines upon a wicker chair, one hand resting upon a book, the other grasping a cigarette. He gazes straight out at you. He is awash in a sea of yellow. Only his flesh, hair, cigarette, and chair are other than yellow. The background is textured golden, the oil of the paint forming thin clots that give the painting depth. Kupka’s robe is a brighter yellow, the fabric folding, reflecting, capturing light. Even his book and pillow are yellow. Each minute I move closer to the painting, I find myself more absorbed by its details. Soon there is only the painting and I, I and the painting, a moment of pure being, pure connection, the experience of being part of something larger than myself.

Mushrooms, a tree, cat and human, knowledge and art, Buber claimed “All actual life is encounter.” As we seek the religious tools to help us deal with the great disruptions of the hour, I suggest that we open ourselves up to these experiences of encounter. They can help us understand that we are neither separate from each other nor separate from the Earth. We are not alienated from our planet or the family of all souls. We are all intricately bound together and by opening ourselves to the I-Thou, the experience of mystery, we find strength and reorientation for the struggles ahead.

We can find that sense of connection within the walls of this sanctuary as well. I suspect that it is one reason why so many of us gather together, Sunday after Sunday. Here when we lift our voices together in song, sit together in the wooden pews, or join together in meditation we can encounter the feeling of connection to a community, the feeling of connection to something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of life.

And in the last months, I have found that I can have the experience of connection even in the city of Houston. As I have walked through the streets of Montrose I have seen it there--purslane--a plant I know how to pick, eat and prepare. Small, succulent weed, thick juicy leaves, red creeping stalk, medicinal, edible, a gentle reminder to me that even when I feel alienated, disconnected, from the sweet Earth there is always the possibility of reconnection, of rerooting, of opening myself to the beauty and mystery of the all that surrounds us.

So that such moments of connection, such gentle overcomings of alienation, might be available to all of us, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Food Ministry Sermon Techno Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Houston Texans Dallas Cowboys Houston Astros Houston Rockets Mushrooms Alienation Mysticism Chanterelles Bicolor Boletes Lurid Boletes Boletus Speciosus Devil's Boletes Climate Crisis White Supremacy Joy Harjo Friedrich Schleiermacher Thandeka Paganism Buddhism Underground Resistance "Mad" Mike Banks Martin Buber denise levertov Cats Unitarian Universalism God Forrest Church via negativa via postiva František Kupka The Yellow Scale Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Montrose Purslane

Aug 20, 2019

Reflecting on Europe 2019

This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.

Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.

If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.

Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Food IWW News Tags Arles Sers Paris London England France Europe Markéta Luskačová Libuse Jarcovjakova Cadenheads Parc de la Villette Chateau d’If Versailles Marseille Rue de Turenne

Aug 16, 2019

I Got The Knowledge (Leaving London)

Our trip home was relatively simple compared with our trip to London from Sers. It only involved two modes of transit: airplanes and automobiles. We decided not to take the Heathrow Express. The cost of buying four tickets was roughly the same as the cost of hiring a black car to Heathrow. So, we took a black car, complete with London cabbie, from the flat to the airport and then caught our flight to New York. In New York, after we cleared customs, we had to transfer between JFK and LaGuardia. In order to save money I bought tickets from Houston to New York and then from New York to Europe rather than connecting flights through the airlines (I saved over $1,000 this way). We took a New York taxi and then flew home to Houston. Once there we hired a car service via an app and made it home around midnight. We were greeted by a happy cat (or at least loudly purring cat who couldn’t keep off of us if I refrain from anthropomorphizing him).

My blog posts about London are:

London Restaurants
Markéta Luskačová
Many Happy Future Shocks to You
The Last Bottle in the Country
The Cat Owned the Flat
Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London

Since this is my last post on London, I want to close by praising London cabbies. In London, taxi driving is highly regulated. It is a solid middle income job and getting a job as a taxi driver requires passing a special test, called The Knowledge, and waiting for a few years for an opening (in order to get a job driving from one of the airports you have to be able to speak at least two languages as well). The Knowledge is nothing more than understanding how to navigate through London’s notoriously mazing streets. Cabbies pride themselves in having The Knowledge. And its benefits, even in the age of GPS, sometimes show themselves. On our way to the airport the GPS wanted us to go the wrong way down a one-way street--the street had been converted into being one way for the day. The driver ignored the GPS recommendation and got us to the airport 15 minutes before the GPS on my phone said we supposed to get there, all the while obeying the speed limit. It was an impressive, if minor, victory of man over machine. I am sure that at some point in the near future apps like Waze will outperform The Knowlege. But that moment has not yet come. When I commented on our arrival time to the airport the driver, as if on cue, told me, “It’s ‘cause I got The Knowledge, sir.”

CommentsCategories Food News Tags London Sers Heathrow Travel New York JFK LaGuardia Taxi Drivers The Knowlege Markéta Luskačová Scotch Dayton El Paso Gilroy Southhaven Gun Violence

Aug 15, 2019

London Restaurants

Like Paris, London is one of the great food cities of the world. On this trip, we ate at two of the city’s most iconic restaurants—St. John and Ottolenghi. We had a number of pub meals, some memorable and some easily forgettable, and fantastic pizza. We also ate mediocre noodles at Menya Ramen House (my son argued, and I agree with him, that the Sunday afternoon ramen—with homemade noodles and broth—served out of paper cups at Ebisuya in Medford is significantly better) and had some innovative dim sum at a place called BaoziInn.

Ottolenghi

My parents made reservations three months in advance so we could have dinner at the eponymous restaurant of Yotam Ottolenghi—author of numerous popular cookbooks that form a staple in our houses. The thing that surprised me most about Ottolenghi was its modest price. Unlike the two high end restaurants we ate in France, Ottolenghi is quite affordable—plenty of the items on the menu cost less than 15 pounds. In truth, it’s the wine that really costs. If you’re in London, on a budget, and want to eat there, two people could probably have a world class meal without drinks for under 60 pounds (maybe even under 50).

The menu is divided into two sections. There are a bunch of pre-made dishes—essentially tapas—that they have in the window for passersby to see. These are all cold and all delicious. The most memorable was a grilled gem lettuce salad (grilled lettuce being something that I very much like and rarely find on the menu anywhere).

The other part of the menu is the larger hot dishes that come from the kitchen. We got a whole sole to share amongst the three adults, for reasons that are unclear to me neither of my children like seafood, while my son had pork chops (which he split with my father). We had a couple of other hot dishes, the mackerel being most memorable, and finished with some great desserts (the British usually call them puddings) which were flavorful and not too sweet.

St. John

We had dinner with Marketa Luskacova our last night in London at St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. Years ago, it was almost impossible to get into. These days it is still quite popular, but St. John Bread and Wine was able to accommodate a party of five with a few days’ notice. Like Ottolenghi, it is surprisingly affordable. The total cost of meal for five, with drinks, was about the same cost as a meal at a fairly good mid-priced place in Houston. The food, however, was in a different class.

St. John is credited with launching a Renaissance in British cooking. When it opened it did something completely different—it offered a well executed return to classic British cooking. Not pub food, or the high-end stuff that, at the time, was basically trying to imitate French or Italian, but the food that the British made for themselves from local ingredients prior to the wars.

It advocated something they called nose to tail cooking—making use of every part of the animal—which I appreciated in the 1990s and still appreciate today (I didn't partake in it then (as I was, at the time, a vegetarian) or now (currently being a pescatarian)). St. John also returned to vegetables that had been forgotten or where rarely used—samphire being one—perfected the Welsh Rarebit, and just generally celebrated local food.

I love St. John because despite all of this it is the opposite of pretentious. The tables are refurbished wood and the chairs exhibit a utilitarian happenstance like beauty rather than an intentional elegance. What’s more, it is quite possible to eat there for the same price as a meal of fish and chips. Their Welsh Rarebit is something like a seven pounds. That, a green salad to accompany it, and a glass to wash it down won’t set you back more than fifteen pounds.

Smokehouse Islington

We ate here our first afternoon in London. It is located right up the street from the flat we rented for the week. Overall the meal was quite nice—the best bit probably being their homemade kimchi—but the part we enjoyed most was the sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a classic British dessert and sometimes can be a bit cloying. This version was just about perfect, spicy and deep with a sweet, but not overwhelming, toffee.

Santore

Over the years, I have become something of a pizza connoisseur. As a single parent, I have often had to take my son along with me on preaching and speaking gigs. Part of the deal is that whenever he accompanies, we try the local pizza place that is reputed to be the best. I have lost track of the number of pizza places we’ve eaten at together but it’s easily over fifty.

Our consensus is that the best pizza we’ve had is from Santarpio’s in Boston. It is one of the oldest pizza places in the United States. I took my son there for all of his birthdays between the ages of six and ten and we made sure to eat there when we were in Boston for my first Minns lecture.

Santore is second on the list (I would actually put it first, but I doubt my son would forgive me). Located in the Exmouth Market, they make pizza by the meter. The sauce is amazing (fined ground tomato without too much garlic), the cheese excellent, and the presentation, well the presentation is something else.

Baozilnn

We had dim sum for lunch our last day in London before going to go see Hamilton. We wanted someplace near Hamleys, where my son and I spent the morning, from which we could to travel the theater easily afterwards. BaoziInn specializes in colorful dim sum, basically dumplings cooked in dough that’s been naturally colored with beet or spinach juice. Overall, it was among the better dim sum I have had (the salt and pepper squid was exceptional). My son really liked their soup dumplings and there was a cloud ear fungus dish that was something else.

Of the five restaurants I have mentioned, I would definitely go back to Ottolenghi, St. John and Santore. BaoziInn and Smokehouse were both good, but I would only go to them again if they happened to be convenient. The dim sum at BaoziInn is a fun experience but in truth its not as good as Windsor Dim Sum Cafe in Boston, where my family went regularly when we lived there. And Smokehouse is basically a less interesting, and less well executed, version of St. John.

 

 

CommentsCategories Food News Tags Ottolenghi London St. John Menya Ramen House Ebisuya Medford BaoziInn Tapas Spitalfields Market Marketa Luskacova Samphire Welsh Rarebit Smokehouse Islington Santore Pizza Boston Santarpio's Minns Lectures Exmouth Market Hamilton Hamleys Sticky Toffee Pudding Houston Windsor Dim Sum Cafe

Aug 6, 2019

The Last Bottle in the Country

I have a great number of memories associated with whiskey, particularly scotch whiskey. My father became a scotch aficionado through the efforts of his late friend the Scottish photographer Murray Johnston. When I was nine or ten years old the two of them took me out one night to pub in Edinburgh that specialized in scotch. I remember staring up at the rows upon rows of hundreds of different kinds of scotchs as the two of them rambled on about photography. I have no idea why I was with them or what I did while they talked. I suspect that they were watching me while Murray’s wife Kate and my mother caught up.

Whatever the case, scotch has always been a deeply gendered drink in my family. My ex-wife hates it and my mother typically only tastes it. During my parents’ dinner parties there usually comes a point in the evening when the gathering divides along gendered lines—the men assemble to drink whiskey and the women, well, I am not actually certain what the women drink, port or armagnac or calvados or something.

Over the decades, Cadenhead’s scotch has been the second most special digestif served at these parties (the prize of most special belonged to a case of pre-Prohibition rye whiskey, now sadly gone, that someone found boarded up in the basement of a New York apartment building). Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler. They basically go around Scotland and buy casks of scotch which they then age further and bottle themselves.

Cadenhead’s has a storefront in Edinburgh. We go to it whenever we are there. They used to let you taste whiskey straight out of the cask, which was an amazing, if somewhat intoxicating experience. My father arranged for a whiskey tasting for me there the summer I turned 21. And last time I was in Scotland with him we went, and they bottled the scotch straight from the cask for us.

Scotland isn’t on the itinerary for this summer’s trip. Fortunately, Cadenhead’s has a London store. My father and I went while my mother and son slept in. Cadenhead’s London location is near the Baker St. station with its Sherlock Holmes statue. It’s on a street of very tony shops—something like the Marais in Paris but with significantly less grit.

The shop consists of three rooms—two rooms displaying wares and a third for storage. Unfortunately, they don’t sell scotch from the cask anymore. Apparently, the same government that is devoted to Brexit is also devoted to heavily regulating the whiskey business. They made it illegal for Cadenhead’s to bottle in the store and so they can’t offer tastes from the cask anymore.

They still give tastes and guidance. They also offer political commentary. One of the staff members referred to the current administration in the United States as the Fourth Reich and complained bitterly about Brexit and Boris Johnson. He told me that US trade policies have resulted in the cost American whiskey skyrocketing. And he showed me a bottle of 8-year-old Wild Turkey that he had on sale for 85 pounds, not because it was any good but because distributors can’t sell it in the UK anymore.

I love peaty scotches—my ex-wife described the scotch I like as tasting like dirt—and his colleague helped me select some. I bought three bottles: a bottle of the Islay that Cadenhead’s distilled themselves, a bottle of Old Ballantruan, and a bottle of 14-year Benrinnes that Cadenhead’s bottled themselves. The last bottle came from a cask of 264 bottles. It was final bottle they had for sale and they assured me it was good. So, I bought it, the last bottle 14-year Benrinne in the country. I am not claiming it super special, but it has a nice story behind it and, because it is Cadenhead’s, I know it will be good quality. I hope, though, when I serve it at a dinner party people won’t decide to self-segregate along gender lines. I suppose if they do, I have some nice cognac.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags Scotch Murray Johnston Kate Johnston Gender Cadenhead's Edinburgh London Marais Paris Brexit Boris Johnson Donald Trump Old Ballantruan Benrinnes Islay

Aug 3, 2019

Leaving France

Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.

Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:

Paris Restaurants (and one from Angouleme)
Sers
Château de La Rochefoucauld
Angoulême

Here are links to the posts I wrote about Arles and Paris. The posts from our first couple of days in Europe are available here and here.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags France Paris Sers Angoulême Château de La Rochefoucauld Gatwick London Mass Transit

Jul 29, 2019

Sers

This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.

We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.

About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags France Sers Cognac John Rawls James Baldwin Angoulême Les Frères Moine Pineau des Charentes

Paris Restaurants (and one from Angouleme)

No discussion of Paris would be complete without at least a gesture towards the city’s restaurants. In past years, when I’ve been in Paris, we’ve cooked a lot in the apartment we’ve rented. This year the apartment we had was quite small and the heatwave was debilitating. As a result, we didn’t host any dinner parties or make excursions to the Bastille Market. Instead, we either ate sandwiches and pastries from the local boulangeries (bakeries) or went out to eat. Here are some a few of my favorite meals:

Yam’Tcha

My parents took my son and I and their friends Gilles and Nicole to this Michelin Star restaurant that has been getting a lot of press internationally. The chef specializes in a fusion of French and Chinese and doesn’t cook from recipes. She goes to the market and is inspired each day from what she find’s there. The most interesting part of the meal was the tea and wine pairings that went with each course. We had what was billed as a three-course meal but actually turned out to be six courses. There were two amuse bouches—Chinese waffles and three small dishes of crab, sea snails, and egg rolls—followed by a salad of heirloom tomatoes, cockles, and mussels, a main course of sea bass cooked with tea, and then a dessert of fruit and sorbet finished by a palette cleansing coconut marshmallow and a coconut sorbet.

Alongside each course was either a delightful tea—white, oolong, or green—or a wine. I’ve never had food specifically paired with tea before. It works almost as well as pairing it with wine. It’s something I plan to experiment with at home.

Lao Siam and Krung Thep Mahanakorn

The British photographer Nigel Dickinson has been close friends with my parents for something like two decades. He has a fabulous studio in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood. Belleville is a very diverse community. It is one of those places where you can find Sephardic and Tunisian Jews living alongside Muslims from Algeria and Morocco. It is also the home to a sizable Laotian and Thai community.

We had a dinner with Nigel twice. Both times he took us to Laotian or Thai restaurants near his home. The food was far better than any Thai food I’ve had in the United States. It was also quite a bit different. Most Thai places I know serve variations on perhaps a dozen kinds of curries. These places served a huge variety. We had fish mashed and then steamed in a banana leaf while cooked in a coconut milk curry, a red tofu curry that didn’t even vaguely resemble the red curry I get in America, a delicious raw papaya salad, and half a dozen other dishes. Unlike Yam’Tcha, Lao Siam and Krung Thep Mahanakorn were both quite affordable. Two people could eat there for well under forty euros a piece. 

Oyster Club

Oyster Club is a classic Breton seafood place in the Marais. We had their mixed seafood plates and oysters. The mixed seafood plates came with winkles, whelks, more oysters, pink shrimp, and grey shrimp. This last item was to be eaten whole—shell and all.

The restaurant itself is on a small side street and sort of spills out into the street. It’s a lively evening scene and the food is excellent—though the menu is limited to seafood. It is certainly a place I will go back to next time I am in the Marais.

Au Bouquet Saint Paul and Chez Mademoiselle

Au Bouquet Saint Paul and Chez Mademoiselle are two excellent bistros near Rue Saint Antoine in the Marais. Au Bouquet Saint Paul had an inexpensive fixed price lunch—14.50 euro for either an entree and a dessert or an entree and an appetizer—that consisted of classic French bistro food. We ate there twice. The sea bass and gazpacho soup were both great and my son loved the cream brûlée. They also served Berthillon ice cream, which an experience in itself.

Chez Mademoiselle is a bit pricier. It also has a bit more of a scene. It is located in the front of the building where we rented our apartment. I went there a few times—once for dinner and twice for drinks. One night while I was sipping on a glass of rose the bar erupted into a spontaneous dance party. 

La Cigogne (Angouleme)

We ate at La Cigogne for lunch our first full day in Sers. It is a Michelin Plate restaurant. While this is the lowest designation that Michelin can give a restaurant, it doesn’t mean the food is bad. On the contrary, it means it is quite good. It just isn’t good enough to earn a Michelin Star or a Michelin Bib Gourmand. 

I suspect that La Cigogne earned its Michelin ranking because its food is excellent but not necessarily innovative. Yam’Tcha pushes culinary boundaries. La Cigogne delivers fantastic and classic French food. I would happily eat at either again (provided  someone else is picking up the tab) but Yam’Tcha undoubtedly provided the meal that my parents and their friends will be talking about for years to come.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags Yam’Tcha Paris Marais Angouleme Gilles Perrin Nicole Ewenczyk Lao Siam Thai Food Krung Thep Mahanakorn Nigil Dickinson Belleville Photography Oyster Club Au Bouquet Saint Paul Chez Mademoiselle La Cigogne Michelin Guide

Jul 27, 2019

Leaving Paris

We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.

Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:

It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
Versailles
Walking Paris
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
Canicule (Heatwave)

I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Climate Change Food News Tags Paris Sers Angoulême France Gilles Perrin Nicole Ewenczyk Anarchism Organizing Climate Change Rue de Turenne Fashion Socialism Conservatism Versailles Pascale Tournier

Jul 20, 2019

Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)

Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.

The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.

Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.

This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.

One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.

This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Climate Change Contemporary Politics Food Human Rights IWW Ministry News Poetry and Creative Writing Research Notes Sermon Techno Tags Marais Paris France Fashion Mens Clothes Johann Sam Daniel Danyberd Ermenegildo Zegna Karl Marx Alienation Unitarian Universalism Anarchism Champagne Socialism

Jul 31, 2017

Cinnabar Chanterelles and Sour Cream with Fried Potatoes

Yesterday I had friends over to make Czech fruit dumplings. When I make dumplings I usually proceed the dumpling course with a course of salads. In this instance, I made a raw beet salad, a grated carrot salad, and a dish of cinnabar chanterelles and sour cream with fried potatoes. I am fortunate that there’s a nice patch of cinnabars growing a few blocks from my house. I have been able to forage meals from it on three occasions over the last month. I adopted a recipe from the New York Times for the meal:

Cinnabar Chanterelles and Sour Cream with Fried Potatoes

1 lbs cinnabar chanterelles
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lbs small potatoes
1 cup finely chopped onions
3 tablespoons sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Step 1

Clean the mushrooms. Take three medium bowls. Place the foraged mushrooms in one bowl and fill the second with water. Working one at a time, quickly place a mushroom in the water and shake it to knock loose any debris. Then put the mushroom on a cutting board and, using a small paring knife, cut or scrape away any remaining debris. Place the cleaned mushrooms in the third bowl.

Step 2

Place the potatoes in a small saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil and then cook until they are just about fork tender. Remove from heat, drain, and then cut into halves or quarters, depending on the size of the potatoes. Ideally the potato pieces should be bite-sized.

Step 3

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in an iron skillet over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. When the potatoes are ready, remove them from the heat and place in a small bowl.

Step 4

Return the skillet to the stove, add the butter, and melt the butter over medium heat. After the butter has melted, add the onions and cook until they are translucent.

Step 5

Add the mushrooms to the onions and continue cooking until all of the liquid has evaporated. Cinnabar chanterelles give off a lot of water so don’t be surprised if the mushroom and onion mix initially has a soupy consistency.

Step 6

Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the potatoes and cook for another minute or so. Then add the sour cream and cook for an additional two minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: If you want to make this recipe with yellow chanterelles (the kind you can sometimes buy in the grocery store) increase the butter to 2 tablespoons. They are a lot less watery and, consequently, do well with a bit more fat from the butter.

CommentsCategories Food Tags Cinnabar Chanterelles Recipe Fruit Dumplings Foraging

Aug 21, 2014

Marketa's Czech Fruit Dumplings

Several years ago the photographer, and close family friend, Marketa Luskacova taught me how to make Czech fruit dumplings. I try to make the dumplings most summers, just as I make pierogis most winters, and this week we're having a dumpling party for friends. The recipe is so great that I thought I would share. 

Marketa's Czech Fruit Dumplings

Makes about 16 dumplings, depending on the size of the fruit used

Mix:

1 cup rough ground white wheat flour or refined flour mixed with semolina
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 egg
pinch of salt

Let the dough rest for at least one hour.

Then, a piece at a time, pinch off an inch diameter ball of dough, flatten and wrap around the fruit. The dough should be very thin around the fruit. If you are using apricots, plums or cherries keep the stones (pits) in the fruit (other popular fruits are strawberries or apples cut into quarters)*. As you form the dumplings make sure your hands and the dough are both well covered in flour. Otherwise the dumplings will stick.

Immediately before serving boil the dumplings for about six minutes. Apricot and plum dumplings require slightly longer to cook. The dumplings will be ready when they float and the water returns to a boil.

Serve with melted butter, sugar, ground poppy seeds, bread crumbs, dry farmers cheese and sour cream.

*An alternative version requires pitting the fruit before forming the dumplings. When this is done a sugar cube is put in the place of the pit. Cherry dumplings are made three cherries to a dumpling.

CommentsCategories Food Tags Summer Marketa Luskacova

Jul 3, 2013

Kathy's Wild Black Raspberry Sauce

When I was a kid my mother used to make this amazing raspberry sauce. We would eat it on fresh and home canned peaches, ice cream and yogurt. In the last few days I have found an abundance of wild black raspberries growing near where I live. Yesterday I called Mom up and asked her for her recipe.

Kathy’s Wild Black Raspberry Sauce

3 cups wild black raspberries
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar depending on the tartness of the berries
juice of 1 lemon

1. Wash the berries and and mix with the sugar in a moderate sized mixing bowl.
2. Place about half of the berries in a sieve. Holding the sieve over a clean mixing bowl press the berries through it. The sauce should start to come out in globs. Continue pressing the berries until all of the juice is gone and you are only left with seeds and pulp. Repeat with the second half of the berries.
3. Mix in the lemon juice.

The sauce freezes well so you have a wonderful blast of summer in the depth of winter. This recipe makes about 1 cup. I reserve the remaining seeds and pulp and then soak in some cheap rum to make a cordial. You have to, of course, filter the rum before you drink it.

CommentsCategories Food

Jun 28, 2013

Porcini Mushroom Risotto

In Barcelona’s Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria Sara and I were lucky enough to find cheap and plentiful dried porcini powder. I bought a bunch. Last night we had friends over for dinner and I made what might be the best mushroom risotto ever. Here’s the recipe:

2 T butter
3 cloves garlic finely minced
1 shallot finely minced
1 T porcini powder
1 oz dried porcini
1/2 lbs king trumpet mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups arborio rice
5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Place the dried porcini in a bowl and cover with about 1 cup boiling water. Let sit 30 minutes. Remove the porcini from the water and chop. Reserve the water.
2. Add the mushroom water to the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil in a medium sized sauce pan.
3. Melt the butter in a 3 or 4 quart french oven or similarly sized pan. Add the shallot and garlic and cook until fragrant.
4. Add the trumpet mushrooms and sauté until soft.
5. Add the wine and porcini powder. Cook until thickened.
6. Stir in the rice and cook until translucent and well coated with the powder, garlic, shallot and butter mixture. This should take no more than 2 or 3 minutes. Do not let the rice brown.
7. Stir in the stock mushroom water mixture 1/2 cup at a time. Make sure the liquid is completely absorbed before adding more. Make certain to scrap the bottom of the pan so that the rice doesn’t stick.
8. Stir the porcini when half the liquid has been used.
9. When you have only a cup of liquid left stir in the cheese and then the balance of the liquid.
10. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

CommentsCategories Food

Mar 30, 2013

Mom's Haroset Recipe

In honor of Passover, and because we're going to a Seder tonight, I thought I would post my mother's recipe for haroset. 

Haroset

Makes 3 cups

2 large, crisp apples, cored and partly peeled
½ cup raisins
¼ cup almonds
½ teaspoon each ground ginger and cinnamon
4 to six or more tablespoons sweet red kosher wine

1. Coarsely chop raisins and almonds to desired consistency, do not over chop. Use food processor
2. Coarsely chop apples
3. Mix together with other ingredients and refrigerate 4 hours for flavors to blend

CommentsCategories Food

Feb 25, 2013

Some Sides for Pierogis

In case you're curious, this beet salad and this cucumber salad both go well with my perogis. 

CommentsCategories Food

Feb 24, 2013

Anarchist Vegan Pierogis

Well, it's that time of year again, time for my vegan anarchist perigois. They're vegan because, well, they're dairy and egg free, and they're anarchist because, well, I'm the one who makes them.

Anarchist Pierogi (Vegan)
adapted from Saveur issue 37

Dough

1 egg worth egg replacer
3 tbsp melted vegan margarine
2 tsp salt
5 1/2 cups flour

Filling

4 medium potatoes, peeled and halved
10 tbsp melted vegan margarine
2 heads garlic, diced
1 onion, chopped
8 ozs mushrooms, diced
1/2 cup sauerkraut
salt and pepper to taste

1. For the dough: Put egg replacer, vegan margarine, salt, and 2 cups warm water in bowl and mix until combined with either an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, continuing to beat. Keep beating until a soft, elastic dough forms. Transfer dough to a floured surface and knead to form a smooth ball. Cover dough with a damp cloth and set aside for at least 30 minutes.

2. For the filling: Put potatoes in a medium pot of cold salted water, bring to a boil over high heat, and cook until tender, 20-30 minutes. Drain, then return potatoes to pot. Add 5 tbsp vegan margarine and mash potatoes with a potato masher or fork until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

Meanwhile sauté two thirds the garlic 4 tbsp of margarine when it becomes translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are soft and then add salt and pepper to taste.

Concurrently sauté the remaining garlic and the onion in the remaining margarine until the onion and garlic and soft and a little golden.

Divide the potatoes into three equal portions and mix the sautéed mushrooms into one portion, the onions and garlic into the second and the sauerkraut into the third.

3. Divide dough into 2 balls. Roll out 1 dough ball about 1/8" thick on a floured surface, then cut out 3" circles. Spoon 1 heaping tsp. of filling into center of each circle, then fold in half to form a semi-circle. Pinch edges together to seal. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. (Freeze pierogi, if you like, and cook later without thawing).

4. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pierogi in batches, until dough is tender, about 5 minutes. Lift pierogi from boiling water with a slotted spoon and drain well. Serve hot with melted butter or sour cream.

CommentsCategories Food

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