A stubborn goat, a shooting star and an empty 175-year-old inn

By Caitlin Kelly

Never a dull moment, kids!

A map of Prince Edward County
A map of Prince Edward County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On day two of our vacation, we decided to visit the final day of the Picton County Fair, in Prince Edward County, about two hours east of Toronto.

It was one of those perfect fall afternoons — hot sunshine with a cool breeze.

We saw:

— a lawnmower race (Jason plowed into a hay bale)

— a collection of antique tractors, including one from 1926 and this one from 1953

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— the entries in the flower and food competitions

— some fantastic quilts, embroidery, crochet and hooked rugs

— a huge red $175,000 tractor

— a very stubborn goat who, when it was time to parade around the ring for the 4H contest, dug in his hooves, bleated and simply refused to budge

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— some gorgeous vintage automobiles, including this one

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Watching the four young girls posing with their goats was fascinating, as they moved, kneeling in the sawdust, from one side of their animal to the other, rearranged their goat’s legs for the best pose, and awaited the judge’s decision.

It takes a lot of poise and training to wrangle a small stubborn beast, and I admired their dedication. In New York, the girls would have been the ones preening and posing, nervously subject to dismissal.

Here, instead, they were in charge.

And we really liked the judge’s decision to hoist the stubborn one and move him into the ring to get on with it, already. He could have left its owner crying at the entrance, but he didn’t.

I loved seeing all the skills people here are proud of, whether growing a 74 pound pumpkin or hooking a rug…I couldn’t do any of them!

It’s humbling to be reminded how little city-folk generally know about how to care for animals or vegetables or fruit or how to create lovely things for your home. Instead, we buy stuff from enormous corporations, most of it made by low-wage labor in some distant Asian sweatshop.

The inn we chose is simply amazing, a square white building built in 1838 and moved to its current location a few years ago in numbered pieces, then re-constructed by a local historian.

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A pair of Toronto lawyers have poured Godknowshowmuchmoney into renovating it, to perfection. It’s a little austere, but serene, all in calm, neutral colors: rust, cream, olive, black.

It has only four guest rooms, but we were the only people here for all three nights.

So we had this exquisite place all to ourselves: wide plank floors, some original glass in the windows casting bubbled and swirling shadows, a formal oil portrait in the hallway. I love looking out at the trees through ancient glass, wondering what others were thinking when they did so a century and a half ago.

The only sound we can hear is wind rustling the crisping leaves, blown from Lake Ontario across the street.

The front door handle is small, round, brass — even opening the door transports you to a different time and way of moving through space.

I imagine being a woman of the period, alighting from our carriage, and sweeping in with a wide, bustled skirt to a home with no electricity, wi-fi or telephone.

And the stars here are glorious, the Milky Way blessedly once more visible.

I even saw a shooting star.

What did you make today?

By Caitlin Kelly

It was the end of the day, time to go for my walk along our town’s reservoir.

It’s a walk I’ve made dozens of times, in every season, for many years, along an asphalt path shaded by towering trees, the  reservoir on one side, filled with ducks and swans and turtles. People come there to fish, or sit, or jog.

Cyclists whiz past.

Nothing new.

All familiar.

But for…a trick of the light.

Spider web
Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re in the right place at just the right moment, and you’re paying attention — not yammering on your cellphone or texting or racing past — you’ll see stuff.

A deer. A small black turtle. Some ripe raspberries.

And there, shimmering in the early evening sunshine, was a huge spiderweb, as big — I measured — as the entire size of my hand, from base of my palm to the end of my middle finger, seven inches.

It was spectacular!

It was attached, with multiple strands, to the thick bark of a tree, as if, like some bivouacking mountain-climber, s/he’d decided to latch on and dangle. There were multiple attachment points, and then the web itself, with so many concentric circles I couldn’t count them all — 20?

In the center sat a very small brown spider, (probably exhausted!), perhaps half the size of my smallest fingernail. Even better, there were about five other, smaller webs nearby, sort of a spider condominium, each with its own spider. (Relatives? Tenants? Guests?)

I stood there for a few minutes, awestruck by the skill, artistry and the spontaneous beauty it brought to the end of my day.

What on earth could I possibly make of such delicate strength?

What did you make today?

Twenty things that make me happy

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve spent much of my adult life striving, mostly professionally, often socially. I left my native Canada, and a thriving career and dear friends, to follow a man I married, (who walked out after two years of marriage). I’ve survived three recessions since 1989 and four orthopedic surgeries since 2000.

Would I ever have a calmer, steadier life?

Recently, I’ve felt…happy.

OMG!

Dare I even write those words? I feel like I’m tempting fate.

But things have been lovely of late.

I know one reason — the endless crisis/problem-solving/emotional dramas/fear and pain of the past few years are gone. My left hip, which caused me 2.5 years of 24/7 pain, was replaced 18 months ago. My mother, whose crises seemed endless, is now in a nursing home. Work, finally, seems to be much more solid than the terrifying, scraping pennies-from-the-sofa-cushions dips of 2008-9.

Here are some of the things that make me happy:

— Our town’s reservoir, whose landmarks are a cormorant who stands very still and spreads his wings in the sunshine, white swans, duck bums in the air, Queen Ann’s lace and orange lilies by the roadside. Best of all — turtles! There are about a dozen of them, all black and round, who line up along some rubber tubing at the water’s edge.

Queen Ann s Lace 02
Queen Ann s Lace 02 (Photo credit: Macomb Paynes)

— The flowers on our balcony, orange and purple and white and yellow, adding beauty to every day.

— My husband’s kisses.

— My dance classes, jazz and modern. It’s such a delicious relief to leave words and speech behind, to sway and bend and spin and twist with others. To stretch, still touching my palms flat to the floor. I love using a corporeal vocabulary I’ve known for decades: chassees, plies, tendues, battements, ronds de jambes.

— A surprise check at the exact moment I need it.

— An unexpected assignment, two of which showed up this week.

— A full refund, many years later, for a spendy skirt I bought at Nordstrom.

— The pool at our apartment building. On these 95+ degree days, it is such a blessing to plunge in and cool off.

— Freshly-baked banana bread, hot from the oven, that I made.

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— A full pot of tea, poured from a white china teapot.

— A big bunch of white flowers.

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— Fresh corn.

— Our new tent, which I can put up, alone, within minutes.

— Outdoors antiques fairs and flea markets, where I always find something fantastic — an Edwardian necklace, a Moroccan lantern or some vintage crochet edging.

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Mother of pearl, metal, glass beads and ebony, $55. Score!

— Throwing a party. Tomorrow we’re having about two dozen friends over to celebrate Malled’s publication in China.

— Making new friends.

Flo and Friend 1908
Flo and Friend 1908 (Photo credit: dottygirl)

— Discovering the most unlikely connections with a new friend, like the woman my age with whom I went for lunch to talk about work. She had been a professional ballerina, and danced in productions with Nureyev. I had performed at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty with him in the lead. The odds?!

Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center (Photo credit: Glyn Lowe Photoworks)

— An hour+ long phone chat with a friend who’s known me for decades.

— Helping younger journalists who ask me for advice.

— Having our suburban NY street thick with bushes full of ripe raspberries.

How about you?

What makes you happy these days?

My Grand Canyon photos — and some stories to go with them

By Caitlin Kelly

The Grand Canyon is 277 river miles long, a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. It was declared a national park in 1919 — and today receives five million visitors a year. You can visit the South Rim, (the most popular), which is dotted with hotels and two campgrounds, restaurants and shops, or the North Rim, which is 1,000 feet higher — and therefore even cooler. Altitude is about 7,000 feet, which can leave you breathless from even simple activities.

At the bottom lies the Colorado River, along which veteran boatmen take brave souls.

Many visitors, though, never venture below the rim, preferring only to snap a few photos or walk around the rim, which is easily done through a system of free buses allowing you to walk as little, or as much, as you like.

In 1994, I hiked down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point — stupidly, doing the last, unshaded section, alone at noon — by then 100+ degrees. It was the first time I truly understood hyperthermia, how the body literally cooks. In desperation, I began pouring my bottles of water over my head. I sat in the creek at Indian Garden for 30 minutes, soaking my clothes completely and trying to cool my core temperature.

Then I looked up at the rim and thought, “Not possible.” Eight hours later, I emerged, the straps of my backpack crusted white with the dried salt of my sweat. I would urge every visitor to hike into the Canyon, intelligently. Nothing compares to the experience of being inside it, not just looking at it from a safe, noisy, crowded distance.

Note: all images here are mine, and copyright!

If you are afraid of heights, don’t stand close to the rim! The edges are rocky, slippery and unprotected.  People have fallen to their deaths.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The canyon is the result of billions of years of erosion, with multiple layers of rock. The white layer is Kaibab limestone.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This is Bright Angel Trail, on a nice, flat bit! It is the most-used trail and is also used by people riding on mules, so look out for fresh dung! Hikers must step aside when they meet a mule and give them right of way. I shot this image late afternoon, in late May, so there is some shade. Hiking in direct sun, and 100-degree temperatures — the temperature rises as you descend into the canyon — is doubly tiring. Drink a lot of water!

I didn’t take as many photos as I thought, but Jose and I like this one the best of all. Several challenges make photographing the Canyon difficult — there is often dust; the scale is enormous; it’s hard to pick a spot that includes some sense of scale (which is why I framed this with weathered, gnarled branches.) The small silvery curve on the left-hand side is the Colorado River, far below.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This sunset image was taken from Hopi Point, one of the overlooks on the South Rim. It is one of the two most popular spots for people to congregate, and the views are excellent. But too many people are rude, noisy and distracting — if you really want to savor a sunset in solitude and silence, do not pick that spot! The sun sets around 7:30 (late May) and rises by 5:00 a.m.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

One of the most amazing and lovely aspects of the Canyon is the terrific abundance of wildlife. This shot was taken with a small Canon G7, not a telephoto lens — i.e. I was barely a few feet away from this squirrel. But — very serious warning! — the single most common injury here is squirrel attacks. If you are bitten, you will need five injections from the lovely folks staffing the GC Clinic: plague, tetanus, rabies and two others. Do not feed the damn squirrels!

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

A few post-vacation epiphanies

By Caitlin Kelly

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My hotel room in Flagstaff at the Hotel Monte Vista, completed in 1927.

Here are a few of the things I realized while away for two weeks:

I need to spend time alone

I work alone all day every day. How could I possibly need more solitude? What am I — a hermit manquee? But I also live in an apartment building filled with neighbors I have known for decades, work with dozens of editors and fellow writers and spend a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy, every day, interacting with the world, often doing my best to find, woo, please and keep paying clients for my writing.

It wears me out!

Silence!

Few things are as nourishing as total, profound silence: no beeps, buzzes, cars, kids, pets. A silence so thick your ears feel blanketed. Step below the rim of the Grand Canyon onto one of the trails and just sit still for minutes, even an hour, surrounded by milennia, in silence.

Aaaaaah.

Being in nature/the outdoor world is deeply and profoundly healing

I can’t explain why this is so deeply affecting to me, but it is. On this trip I saw: rabbits, deer, elk, ravens, condors, road-runners, jays, robins, lizards of several sizes, squirrels, chipmunks. I did not (whew) see a rattlesnake or mountain lion, both common in parts of Arizona.

My favorite natural sound in the world — the wind sighing through pine trees. My favorite natural scent? Dried pine needles. The ponderosa pine forests bordering the Grand Canyon are, in this respect, heaven on earth.

The hell with “the news”

I read no newspapers, watched no TV, did not listen to the radio for five days. No access to the internet unless I paid for it. When, in fact, so much “news” is not new at all and is often telling me something stressful, distressing and/or something over which I have absolutely no control.

It is wearying to listen as much as I do, try to process it and make sense of it, whether the latest tornado devastating Oklahoma or the riots in Istanbul.

No technology

I spend much of my time processing/refining/producing, and most of my time is spent staring at a screen or tapping a keyboard. Ca suffit! I was thrilled when I “lost” the bit of my cellphone charge cord that plugs into the wall — giving me days of being truly out of touch. (Turned out it was buried in my duffel bag the whole time.)

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Vanity is a time-suck!

In my tiny hotel room in Flagstaff, I dropped my Sephora brush, shattering the mirror. So much for worrying about my looks! A week without makeup, perfume, even deodorant — bliss! (I may be an 1860s rural bachelor in disguise.)

In dismay, I watched young women at the Grand Canyon showers flat-ironing their hair, applying mascara and generally fussing way too much about their appearance. You’re camping!

Traveling alone is key

I really like being out on the road by myself. I like relating to strangers as me — not “the wife of” or “the writer for” — and just roaming about spontaneously. I read maps, on paper, old-school. I like having to figure shit out on the fly, alone. I just love to travel, and it’s a great luxury to do exactly what I want, when and where and how I choose.

My husband is a protective sort of guy, forever worrying about me. If he’d seen some of the paths I was walking on…oy.

The Grand Canyon is missing (!) 1.5 billion years of geological time — called The Great Unconformity — which does rather put one’s own life into perspective

My brain shuts down trying to fathom a thousand years. Now, try a million. Now, a billion.

To walk across rocks and touch fossils 270 million years old is a terrific/sobering reminder how utterly insignificant we are, and what a blink we each represent in time.

I like learning new stuff

I love to learn new things — how old a cotton-tail is when it abandons its babies (three months, I was told); or how to avoid a mountain lion or what to do when you see/hear a rattlesnake. Or how to pitch a tent (and re-fold it. Hah.) All too often, at home, everything I learn is work/income-related. I am very very bad at hobbies. Travel, de facto, forces you onto a learning curve, especially solo and somewhat rugged travel.

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It’s good to remember, and use, a bunch of stuff I already know

As a new friend said — competence! I bought 40 feet of cord at a hardware store and a small, sharp knife, with no plan but a sense I’d need both. And I did — to string up a tarp over my tent, to attach to my glasses frames so they could not fly off while horse-back riding through the desert. To attach all those ropes meant making figure-eight knots and clove hitches, stuff I learned as a kid and used as a sailor.

Horseback riding meant remembering (ouch!) how to trot, how to guide a horse, how to not fall off and how to mount and dismount.

It’s great to leave the husband behind once in a while

It’s great to miss him — and be missed!

Most people are rushing-around-in-an-insane-non-stop-noise-producing frenzy. WTF?!

Tell me, please, the point of going somewhere as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon, then never, once, not for a second, shutting the hell up and appreciating its beauty and mystery — in silence. Not sketching or drawing (which takes time and contemplation), but quickquickquick snapping tons of pix. It was exhausting listening to them all shouting at their unruly children or barking instructions at one another in French/German/Japanese.

It made me want to put Xanax in the damn water supply. Good God, people. Can you just sit still for 10 minutes?

Doing less, more slowly, is not a sign of weakness or defeat

This was a first. Sigh.

This week — June 6 — I hit yet another birthday and, for the first time, feel (ugh) a little bit my age. The last trip I made to the Grand Canyon I was 39, had just fenced sabre at nationals in Salt Lake City and had thighs of steel with stamina to match. I hiked four hours down and eight back up to the rim.

This time? Not so much.

With my left foot injured, walking a lot seemed unappealing. The altitude — 7,071 feet at the spot where I watched one sunset — left me a little breathless when ascending a steep trail.

So I just said the hell with it, something that would have been impossible for me to admit a few years ago. I watched everyone biking and hiking and striding with great purpose and intensity — and yawned. I sketched and took photos and sat still. I walked the rim, and did only one 1.1 mile walk on flat ground, albeit at noon, which was way too hot.

Pretty fucking geriatric!

Whatever. I had a great time.


There are some amazing women out there!

I’ve so enjoyed some of the women I’ve met in Arizona, from the nurse and doctor who treated my foot injury to the 27-year-old esthetician/ barrel racer who drives 18 hours one way with her horses and dogs and young son from her home in Wyoming to her childhood home in Tucson.

Talk about a skill set…

Then there were the two lady park rangers, in Stetsons with badges, patrolling the desert on horseback. What a neat job!

I miss being around women whose highest priority is not being thin/rich/powerful (New York) but being strong/cool/competent and fun. I like a woman in spurs! Maybe, one day, I’ll be one as well.

How to not get eaten by a mountain lion

By Caitlin Kelly

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It was only after we saw this sign that we turned to one another — cool New York City journalists who are expected to know a lot about the world every day — that we asked each other: “What is it we’re supposed to do?”

We had started our hike through Sabino Canyon, on the edge of Tucson, before reading the warning signs. You do not run. You do not turn your back. You try to make yourself larger than before (eat a doughnut? Eat a dozen?) in order to scare it.

Yeah, right.

We did not, luckily, see a mountain lion.

English: This is a view of Sabino Canyon, nort...
English: This is a view of Sabino Canyon, northeast of Tucson, AZ, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We did see three white-tailed deer, a bunny (might have been a jackalope), doves and about five different sorts of lizard, one so tiny he was the width of my middle finger and would easily have fit into my palm. They would pause, virtually invisible against a small rock or a tree trunk, waving their frond of a tail back and forth. They were impossibly lovely, so perfectly designed for their environment. One was striped in rust, white and brown, reminding me of a chipmunk.

I love the desert. It is such an elemental place, filled with a beauty that is specific and subtle. Cactus have a cartoony presence when fleshy, green and alive — but their bones, as it were, are an astonishing interior architecture, when dried and brittle and gray, that looks like coral. Every student of art, design and architecture needs to spend hours, days, weeks, studying this landscape.

As we walked, flakes of mica winked up at us from the rocky path. I picked up three of them. If I found a really big one I could use it as a mirror and flash it at the sky for an SOS signal. (If I knew Morse code. Oooops.)

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Aren’t they gorgeous?

We started our hike at 8:00 a.m., although the sun had been up since 6:00. I knew there are rattlesnakes and my friend asked me to make the sound they make but I am not very good at imitating it. I did know enough not to stick my hand beneath any rocks or to sit down without looking around very carefully.

One of the reasons I so love being out in the desert is the necessary reminder that, out there — as in our every urban day, deceptively cocooned by labels and technology and fast/fine food and taxis and buses and jobs — we are merely one more species on this fragile planet.

We are poorly adapted, too. Our skin is fragile, easily punctured or torn by the spines and thorns of the plants out there. We will quickly overheat and char if we do not drink a lot of water and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.

It is a deeply powerful, humbling reminder how silly and small we are in the greater scheme of things. As we walked through the landscape, I realized how much I don’t know about the natural world. What’s the name of that tree? Why are those rocks darker than the others? How can trees grow so high and healthy in so arid a place? (Snow melt and monsoons, a guide told us later.)

Bombycilla cedrorum Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona
Bombycilla cedrorum Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the silence! Doves coo. Wind rustles leaves.

But ego and time melt away in a landscape clearly indifferent to our human presence. Is it 2013? 1813? 1513?

Who knows? Who cares?

Which landscape most moves or touches you?

Metro, boulot, dodo — ras-le-bol!

By Caitlin Kelly

The French say it so much better, as usual — subway/train, work, sleep. (Enough already!)

That’s what “normal” life too often devolves into, a steady and numbing routine that continues unbroken, sometimes for decades.

The past 10 days’ break have been a blessing indeed, with a deliciously indolent rhythm of eat/sleep/repeat. Shop, visit a museum, see friends, read for pleasure, sit in the sun on the dock and listen to gulls squawking. Just slooooooooooooow down to whatever pace is ours alone.

Both of the friends we stayed with, both long-married couples with empty nests, are people we’ve known for many years, welcoming and gracious hosts who fed us well and stayed up into the night talking. Both have cats and large, affectionate dogs who would come and nose us awake in the silent mornings.

The husbands get along beautifully and the women, like me, love to make stuff, whether sewing or art or calligraphy — one is a fellow writer and the other is a graphic designer who teaches and runs her own firm. She helped me make this amazing bag with fabric I bought years ago in Toronto and a vintage watch face I found in Richmond and attached with a button — with a $ sign! — she just happened to have in her stash of antique buttons.

It’s the perfect bag for a freelance writer: time, words, money.

cattibag

It was deeply refreshing to just not have to do anything. (That’s not entirely accurate, as two of my editors wanted more work on two stories I thought were fully tied off, but you ignore clients at your peril.)

This week back home in New York is a bit of the usual whirlwind — meeting a friend in from San Francisco Tuesday for a drink, an event at a local library for my book “Malled” on Wednesday, and Thursday night will join a group of New York Times staffers at a trivia contest — we won last year, so it’s time to defend our title against The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and a room filled with ferocious journalism competitors eager to prove who’s smartest.

It will be the usual blur of meetings, calls, emails, pitches, errands, follow-ups.

The silhouette of a large saguaro stands at su...
The silhouette of a large saguaro stands at sunset in Saguaro National Park on the east side of Tucson, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But next Saturday we fly to Tucson, Arizona for two more weeks where Jose will be working long days teaching the New York Times Student Journalism Institute. I’ll be giving a lecture on freelancing, but the rest of my time there is pure rest and relaxation. I’m hoping to hike the Grand Canyon again — the last time was June 1994 — alone, as last time. I can’t wait to go horseback riding through one of my favorite parts of the country.

Our time off has let us feel human again, not just weary industrial cogs in machines moving far too quickly. We laughed a lot and slept deeply.

Have you been able to take a break recently?

Did it help?

Why everyone, including very large football players, needs a stuffed animal

I love this story!

Turns out even very large, powerful men appreciate the power of a stuffed animal. This is about the New York Giants football team.

From The New York Times:

Everyone knows about Tom Coughlin’s intensity. Everyone knows about Eli Manning’s arm. But, several Giants players say, a little-known key to the team’s success in recent years stands about two feet high. It is covered in fur, pleasant but not precocious, and goes by the endearingly simple name Little Bear.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

James Brewer, a rookie last season, was Little Bear’s custodian when the Giants won the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

His value cannot be overstated, they say. Yes, preparation matters to the Giants. So do practice repetitions, strength training and film study. But along with other mainstays, like Manning, one of the few constants in the Giants’ run to two Super Bowl titles in the past five years has been the presence of Little Bear, the offensive line’s prized stuffed animal.

“Let’s be honest,” guard Chris Snee said, gesturing reverently in Little Bear’s direction. “He’s critical to what we do. He’s an inspiration.”

Hell, yeah!

Here’s a photo of my own line-up, who hang out atop the shelf beside my bed, yes, the one I share with my husband.

Left to right, a monkey Jose bought for me, who makes a shrieking monkey noise. The brown bear was a post-surgical gift from Jose. The small white bear I’ve had since I was very small, probably given to me when we lived in England, ages two to five. He’s been all over the world with me, from Ireland to Vegas. The bunny was a gift after one of my four orthopedic surgeries, from Jose. He, too, travels well and is often in my suitcase or carry-on. In the closet, in such tatters I can’t reconstitute him is Bunny, given to me one Easter by my maternal grandmother, who carried me through my roughest moments of childhood into my late 20s.

And here is Jose’s line-up, some less cuddly than others.

Left to right: The lovely wool Arctic hare was a Christmas present to me from Jose, a Canadian icon. The whalebone Inuit sculpture was a gift from me to him; ditto. The wooden walrus, which opens up to offer a hiding spot, was a gift from him to me. The loon, which emits one of my favorite and most Canadian of sounds — a loon call — was bought on one of our many cross-border gift shop stops on a trip north to Canada.

And I’m fine with it.

My husband, Jose, a career news photographer and editor, has photographed war and riots and dead bodies. In my work as a journalist, I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood, confronted extreme poverty and listened carefully to tales of rape and nightmarish violence.

When I wrote my first book about women and guns, in which I heard extremely upsetting and graphic stories of homicide, suicide and life-altering injury, I ended with up with secondary trauma, a normal consequence of immersing oneself in dark and frightening material, as happens to journalists and photographers. Jose and I each have enough darkness and misery jammed into our heads from decades in news journalism that some friendly, inanimate and portable pals are a very welcome addition to our world.

(And, with no kids or young nieces or nephews, the only way we get near toys is if we buy them ourselves!)

I was in boarding school at eight, and summer camp for eight weeks at the same age. I had no brothers and sisters growing up, so my stuffed animals were often my playmates. I hated dolls — hard, stiff, unyielding — but treasured my cuddly menagerie.

Here’s the small white bear in Banff, Alberta in March 2010, hanging out with his Canadian pals, Mountie bears; the Mounties are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our national police force.

Here are some links to lovely stuffed toys for sale:

Here’s a teddy bear.

And another.

And a zebra.

And, from the legendary New York toy store F.A.O. Schwarz, for the child who has seen it all…a woolly mammoth cub.

And, for all you fans of Babar and Celeste, a new stuffed Babar! Babar, created 80 years ago, is an elephant who normally wears a handsome emerald green suit — French, bien sur!

Did you have stuffed animals growing up?

Do you still?

War Horse and the power of imagination

War Horse (film)
War Horse (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe some of you have been fortunate enough to see the theatrical production of War Horse, (which is on in New York at Lincoln Center until January 6.) Based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, and made into a film last year, this play won five Tonys, including Best Play for 2011. It’s also playing in Melbourne and Toronto and a German-language version opens in Berlin in 2013.

I finally saw it this week, grateful that we have online access to discount tickets — my front-row balcony seat cost me $43 instead of the usual $125.

It’s hard to know where to start to praise this intense and astonishing piece of work. It’s definitely not for young children; I saw a young girl, maybe seven or eight, clinging to her father’s coat in the lobby afterward and knew exactly how she felt.

It is a play about war, and there’s much violence, and gunfire and exploding bombs and crows feasting on corpses, all staples of conflict but hardly what a young child is eager to see or able to handle.

For those who don’t know the work, it’s the story of Joey, a roan horse bought at a county fair and sold to a military officer.  In WWI 18 million horses were killed — but Joey somehow survives. The scenes where he leaps a barbed wire fence or is confronted by a tank are heart-stoppingly dramatic. By the end, when Joey is finally reunited with the boy who loves him, there isn’t a dry eye in the house and snuffles sound from every seat.

Joey, and all the horses in the show, are played by three men, two inside an astonishing construction of cane and painted nylon mesh and one standing outside, manipulating the head and neck.

The power of imagination, somehow, makes the men invisible, even as they remain on-stage whenever the horses do. The puppets, made by the Handspring Theater of South Africa, become snortingly, ground-pawingly, tail-twitchingly alive and the three men essentially disappear. One of the most moving moments, for me, was the death of one of the horses — as the three men silently and slowly withdraw from its shell, its spirit leaves the stage, and us, behind.

Here’s an 18-minute TED talk about them, with a visit from Joey.

One of the great luxuries of living near New York City is easy access to some of the world’s best plays, musicals and concerts. Thanks to my husband’s job, we can get discount tickets whenever they’re offered, and the seats are usually amazingly good, like fifth or eighth row of the orchestra.

I love the imagination, training, research and talent it takes to create these powerful illusions: lighting, costume, music, actors, writing, staging, direction, sets. I’m incredibly lucky we can, occasionally, affordably and regularly savor such skill only an hour from home. It’s one the reasons I wanted to come to New York, and why I’ve stayed.

What’s the most memorable production you’ve ever seen?

My new boss…all 9.2 pounds of her

Cover of "Small Dogs (Complete Pet Owner'...
Cover via Amazon

Boy, is she bossy!

Imperious, demanding, insistent, determined. Exhaustingly high-energy. She runs reallyfast then plops down and passes out.

She rings a small bell, hung at her height at the back door, which she strikes whenever she wants to go out, no matter what time of day or night it is. If you don’t jump up immediately, she fixes you with an indignant stare.

And she has this weird habit of licking my ankles when I come out of the shower.

While house-sitting, I’m also dog-sitting. She’s a small, low-slung terrier, (like my late lamented Petra, who died in June 1996.)

One of my favorite get-well cards after my hip surgery this year came from her…a folded card, posed in front of her at dog height, that read “One step at a time.”

I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a dog. Oh, the cuddles! (Oh, the barking!) She jumps into my lap wherever I am and keeps a careful eye on me when I’m in the shower. (In case I melt?)

She climbs across me, little claws digging into my flesh. (Hello, I have a new six-inch scar!)

I do love the insane enthusiasm with which she greets a patch of grass. The smells! The excitement! Like Petra, she does these little gazelle-like leaps of joy.

But she’s a nervous little thing, forever chewing on her metal name tag attached to her collar or shredding one of her many toys.

Let’s review: curious, imperious, high-energy, not good at sitting still, nervous tics, crazy excited about her environment, loves cuddles.

As a dear French friend once said of me: “T’es charmante et chiante a la fois!”

Exactement.

We might be a very good match after all.