Devonian Corals

petoskey collection

A friend recommended the poetry of Robert Hass to me, which is why I spent half of a weekend this summer in the library reading his Time and Materials cover to cover. This might not be the best method for poetic appreciation – rather like a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole for later digestion – but it proves more effective than returning the book unread.

One poem in particular, “State of the Planet,” arrested me mid-read. Composed for a conference of the same name, it meditates on Earth’s history and considers man’s place within it.  The principle focus is certain environmental problems: polluted, overfished, carrying on nonetheless. Hass imagines a Californian schoolgirl, both as an allusion to future generations of stewards, and to ruminate on how one learns about the world. There are friendly textbooks and voices of authority instructing her about the cosmos, as well as the informative delights of experience: raindrops pelting her crimson backpack, copper-colored Japanese plums, leaning into the face of the wind, the possibility of Petoskeys.

That last was what made me pause, the fifth section in:

If she lived in Michigan or the Ukraine,
She’d find, washed up on the beach in a storm like this
Limestone fossils of Devonian coral. She could study
The faint white markings: she might have to lick the stone
To see them if the wind was drying the pale surface
Even as she held it, to bring back the picture of what life
Looked like forty millions years ago: a honeycomb with mouths.

It grabbed me, but oddly: no one ever bothers calling a Petoskey stone a fossil of Devonian coral. Possibly it was his way of including Charlevoix stones, or whatever folks in the Ukraine call their particular coral fossils; theirs wouldn’t be named for Chief Petosogay like ours are.

More than the mention of Michigan, I was caught by she might lick the stone, which squares up so neatly with reality.

Dry petoskeys Wet Petoskeys

However lovely it is to walk a Michigan beach – or swim, or read, or watch a sunset – the rocks are my greatest lure. Peering at them, poring over them, eyes peeled for that particular array of hexagons, those faint lines made distinct by the wash of a wave.

As Hass notes, it’s more difficult when the stones are dry. Licking the stone is the quickest test if you’ve stepped away from the shore.

I love this about them: that they hide, even as you look at them, especially when you take them further from the water. That mute honeycomb cries out, long after the coral has died, to be returned to the sea.

Petoskey stones

Alphabooks: D is for Drink

D: Drink of Choice While Reading

On one hand, I can and do drink anything whilst reading: water, a gin and tonic, chocolate milk, ginger beer,Cupboard Gatorade, coffee, wine, whiskey, pop, or any given cocktail.  If I’m already drinking something as I pick up a book, or if I get thirsty whilst reading, any beverage will do.

But then again, that is a scandalous falsehood.  For tea is the obvious drink.  Our kettle’s always on the stove, cabinets of tea and mugs directly above it.  The mugs big, solid, and so abundant that there’s always some standing ready no matter how many I’ve left, empty or nearly so, in my bedroom.

Tea typesOn one hand: any kind of tea will work.  Black, green, herbal; English Breakfast, Earl Grey, or spiced orange; blends like Lady Londonderry, Monk’s Blend, Enchanted Forest, or my Sherlockian teas (especially John Watson and, surprisingly, Anderson).  Harney & Sons Royal Wedding tea is delightful.  Cuppa Joy is delicious.

But then, which do I reach for first, and last, and most often in between?  What do I actually make when I need a break from a story, and sip as I sit back down?


Generally, Tetley with heavy whipping cream and a bit of sugar.

Creamy teaYou know that Melpomene and Urania would both commend cream tea to you!  It is a most august and wondrous tradition.

What’s your go-to reading refreshment?

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.


Once, in pursuit of expanding my musical horizons a very little bit, I checked The Best of the Thistle & Shamrock out of the library, and thus added William Jackson’s “Corryvreckan” to my playlists. I never knew what exactly Corryvreckan was, though given all the pictures of Scottish countryside in the video I just linked (after the baffling phoenix at the start), I assumed it was some place that Mr. Jackson found especially inspiring, and never bothered asking why.

Sure, every video YouTube links to it involves whirlpools, but I more or less ignored the implications of that.

Or I did, until a friend on Tumblr shared a post today with some information on Bolton Strid, a river in Yorkshire that kills anyone who tries to cross it and fails (or, worse, tries swimming in it).  Obviously I was fascinated, looked it up, and found a 2.5-year-old Cracked article listing Bolton Strid as one of the “5 Most Spectacular Landscapes on Earth (That Murder You).”

Wouldn’t you know it: said article also lists the Corryvreckan maelstrom. Well. That answers that!

Lured by the promise of some fascinating force of nature, I found the following video. Most of it is a rather soothing video of the Scottish shoreline, accompanied by equally soothing music, but check out 2:20 to 4:15.  If I thought the video from the surface too placid-looking, there’s an animation of the sea bed which somehow impressed upon me the weight and depth of all the water right there.  Go and have a look at the Charybdis Brecani!


Typically when my sister muses leave me alone in the club too long, I start talking to myself and tend toward the confessional. That might yet happen this week, but first: yesterday’s festival of dill.

It could be said that this all really started back in May, when my housemates and I decided to have a somewhat formal tea. We prepared a couple different pots of tea, dairy-free coconut scones, and cucumber sandwiches in plenty. Thus my purchase of, and introduction to, fresh dill.  Prior to that, I’d only encountered dill as in a mirror, darkly: dried and faded and sprinkled on salmon. The fresh bundle was luxuriantly green and terribly fragrant in comparison.

Somehow yesterday demanded a reprise of that redolence, a reappearance of those feathery fronds. It is like having both delicate seaweed and a weeping willow inside one’s kitchen.

The first order of business was to mix some chopped dill into a bit of butter and a bit of cream cheese for English muffin purposes. That done, I decided to infuse a bit of gin with a few stems.

IMG_3310Then the requisite refrigerator pickles: some are garlicky, some are a little peppery, all of them are dilly.IMG_3313 After that, I still wanted to make something, but wasn’t quite up for baked salmon, borsht, or mizeria. Since the dill in the gin had only begun macerating…I grabbed a bit more dill, a bit more gin, and muddled them together. In went some lime juice and some liqueurs: honey, vanilla, ginger, and Chartreuse. The result was a bit like drinking in a sunlight field entire. It struck me as fitting; generally, smelling dill is like breathing in a forest and a field and the sea all at once.

IMG_3318What do you do with dill?

Pipes Up!

I came home to an empty driveway and darkened house tonight.  This did not alarm me overmuch, but I did wonder where my housemates might be spending their Friday evening.  Annnnd then I went inside and got on Facebook, which reminded me that ah yes, they have made their way to Mackinac Island for the weekend.  Which prompts the question: what to do with an empty house?

Obvious, really: listen to really, really loud music!  And maybe vacuum up cobwebs at midnight because I can.  Mix up some really weird drinks.  Do some utterly tragic dancing.  Shower with the bathroom door open.  What can I say?  I live dangerously.

So dangerously, a thought struck.

Why just listen to really loud music when I could make it?

I don’t mean singing at the top of my lungs, nor playing the piano exceptionally ill.  No, this goes further back, back to college days and a rickety old house.

I headed down to the basement and retrieved my bagpipes.

It’s been years since I’ve even touched them.  Hillsdale had a ramshackle house for the pipers, back in the day, such that one could go and practice at any hour without disturbing anyone (much).  Whether one sounded like Donald MacLeod or a dying cat, the Pipe House was there, a judgment-free zone that mostly muffled the sounds from the neighbors.  There’s been nothing like that since – not at my parents’ house, certainly not in the apartment I shared with Thalia, not at my current home.  Not until this moment.

Down the Bagpipe diagramstairs I went to fetch the silver case.  It’s been waiting patiently for me.  I opened the case, took the pipes gently upstairs, and hunted down my water traps (which protect the reeds from getting too wet and mouldering).  There are four, but I could only find the three for the drones; in my eagerness to play, my attempts to find the fourth were half-hearted at best.  I fixed them into place, attached the dangling top joint of the long bass drone, carefully put the chanter in without disturbing the reed, zipped the bag shut, stood and blew.

The bag didn’t inflate and the chanter didn’t sound, but the noise that came out the drones vindicated every joke comparing the sound of the Highland pipes to the shrieks of a thousand tortured souls.

My kneejerk thought was Oh no.  I’ve lost all strength in my diaphragm, so much so that I can’t keep the bag inflated.  But that didn’t make sense – partly because singing ought to have kept my diaphragm strong enough; partly because the bag is meant to serve as a reservoir, pressured by the left arm to press air through the chanter and drone reeds.  So the second thought was Oh no.  I haven’t played it in years, and the seasoning wore off so the bag’s no longer airtight.  That seemed likely enough, but some examination revealed that oh hey!  I failed to zip the bag completely shut.  No wonder the chanter wasn’t sounding! must have known this wasn't going to work...

Scotty…you must have known this wasn’t going to work…

Zipped properly, the bag inflated and the drones…well.  The drones still sounded bad.  But then I adjusted the second tenor drone and voila: the golden ringing tone of drones which might, just possibly, be in tune.  Sure, the stock needs new hemp wound around it to keep the reed in place, but it can be tuned!

My fingers still remember Bonny Galloway, Abide With Me, and Amazing Grace.  I got out my binders of pipe music, and it’s amazing what comes back: the hornpipes that I loved despite their being too fast for me (Honey in the Bag!); the numbers we rehearsed so much that it’s abhorrent merely to set eyes on them (ugggggh, Mull of Kintyre); the songs that accelerate like a train; and the piobaireachd with its elaborate ornamentation.

So housemates, be prepared: my pipes are up, and I don’t think I’ll put them back down.

…well, okay, except for right now, because my lips just gave out.


I took a different road to choir the other night, since rehearsal was on north campus instead of our usual room in Palmer Commons. Huron River Drive took me through the woods, around the river, away from all the shoppers and students and sidewalks of my normal route down Washtenaw Avenue. The windows were down, the air gently breezy and free from summer’s mugginess. Not too hot, not too cold, no bugs, as my uncle always describes a perfect day.

Zipping about with Carbon Leaf blaring filled me with a quietly piercing sort of contentment, the music underscoring the freedom and possibility inherent in the spring. It all struck me as so appropriate: the alternately intense and mellow music, the car, the weather, the drive. I felt the right age, for once. Not too old to discover new things, not too young to do something of consequence.

The delight spreads out like a vapor to fill the heart it’s in, leaving me ready to face the formidable, ready to rejoice.


I took a different road to work yesterday morning, since Ruby was due for her three-month checkup and my father graciously allowed me the use of his vehicle once more. I-96, my typical freeway from Detroit to Plymouth, has been ripped up for replacement, and traffic has been shunted to the parallel roads. So I headed down Fenkell, which was livelier than I’ve seen it quite some time, trying to hit the green lights as ZZ Top sang about cheap sunglasses on 94.7.

I had already forgotten, for the most part, what it’s like to drive a big boat of a Buick: the wide circle of the thin steering wheel, the weight of the car and resulting momentum, the noise of the engine, the raspy speakers. This, too, felt appropriate. Like Fenkell and classic rock and a Buick Century were meant to be together.

The delight rumbles and burns, a Motor City jalopy that keeps on keeping on.

“My Gracious Silence”

I watched the Hiddlestone Coriolanus a few nights ago, and was enthralled. It is an excellent production, from casting to staging, as Terpsichore described. (Seriously, how does a dirt-grimed man moving a chair look so attractive?)

He doesn’t know either.

Coriolanus is a grand tragedy of political and personal dimensions, revolving around several very forceful, very egotistic, and very vocal characters. Caius Macius Coriolanus is the manliest of men, (especially when played by Hiddleston,) but cannot bend his convictions (however flawed they be) to curry political favor. His bossy mother Volumnia not only verbally whips her son, but claims responsibility for his martial prowess.

But in this version, my attention was caught by the quiet, peace-loving wife, Virgilia.

This Virgilia is only vocally silent.

In their first scene together,  Coriolanus address his wife as “my gracious silence”. This phrase has always captured my attention, mostly because that adjective lends a warmth and power to a quality that is often overlooked or criticized. But as a  epithet, it often translates into a negative portrayal of the character.

Virgilia has barely 26 lines, in the whole play, none of which are particularly poignant or important. Her title and her words combined mark her as a passive character, waiting for the action of others to determine her fate, apparently ruled by her voluble mother-in-law, and cloistering herself inside to await her husband. (While her mother-in-law, Volumnia, lives up to her name with some of the most rhetorically powerful speeches in the play.)

Shakespeare’s actions most often occur through the spoken narrative and language of his plays: actions are recounted by messengers and mediated through rhetoric, and interior action revealed through monologues or dialogues. The power of speech is particularly highlighted in Shakespeare by the dearth of stage directions. (But the ones he does have are either direct or narratively expansive. Exit pursued by a bear.) character with few lines often fades into the background.

Yet in this production, Virgilia’s silence is not taken to be complete inaction. When she first appears, her mother-in-law and various friends are trying the convince her to leave off  worrying and weeping over the absence of her husband. Her continued weeping often cements her image as weak-willed, but that discounts one revealing fact:  Virgilia is the only character in the play who hears the rhetoric of persuasion unmoved. While the rest of the cast fall prey to various arguments, it is only Virgilia who remains steadfast in her convictions and in her silence.

She might be silent in part because it is impossible to speak when Volumnia holds forth. But in a play with increasing tension between honest speech and “fair words”, it is notable that Virgilia repeatedly ignores that dichotomy and chooses to hold her silence. Volumnia, the passionate orator, urges Coriolanus to,

” . . .  speak To the people; not by your own instruction,
Nor by the matter which your heart prompts you,
But with such words that are but rooted in
Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables
Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth. ” (2232-2236)

And when Coriolanus bends his character to comply, Virgilia responds by becoming almost mute. When his inability to make the bastard words credible destroys Corilanus, Virgilia (in this portrayal) uses her own lips only for kissing him.

It is not passivity that silences Virgilia;  it is words themselves that fail her.

Corrupt language is what destroyed her husband.  At several points she can only issue broke cries of, “oh heavens, oh heavens!”, as if words themselves cannot hold depth of her heartache (2533).  She is almost choking on her words, as if to articulate them would derive them of reality. Speeches would only make her agony seem trite, so she bears suffering quietly.

Shakespeare, the word master, has crafted excruciating monologues of pain, grief, and reasoning, so it is more than strange that he gives Virgilia such a consistent silence. Yet his use of silence is not uncommon; “silence is the perfectest herald of joy”, declares Claudio, the false lover. Although Claudio’s joy and faith falters,  silence does herald a great many other interior movements. Sobs speak more tellingly of grief than words, as in Lear’s broken speech over the death of Cordelia. And both Hero’s and Hermione’s outrage and sorrow are manifested in the gravest of silences.

This staging of Coriolanus embraces Virgilia’s actions as speaking more poignantly than all of Volumnia’s syllables. Where Menelius and Volumnia use language to deceive, incite, and woo, Virgilia’s lack of words grounds her husband.  Her love for him is clear in every gesture, and needs no other articulation. Virgilia’s lack of speech is not empty, but is a powerful counterweight to the rhetoric of Menelius’ smooth persuasions and Volumnia’s fierce lectures. Where words corrupt and manipulate, Virgilia remains constant.  Her silence is truly filled with grace.

who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you