Four harrowing tales — but worth it



By Caitlin Kelly



I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.


Avast, Me Hearties!

Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco photo taken b...
Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco. Image via Wikipedia
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must down go to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
 — John Masefield

Have you ever seen, or boarded, a Tall Ship?

Having just watched Moby Dick on the Encore channel last week, starring William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, I had a sudden wave of nostalgia for the times I’ve spent aboard them.

I discovered them in 1984 in Toronto, when they came from all over the world to visit. I fell hard for a young American, Kevin, and spent much of that summer meeting him, and his ship, at various ports around the Great Lakes. Ashtabula, Ohio, for example.

I love everything about these extraordinary vessels: the way they creak, their majestic posture, the physical labor of climbing the rigging, coiling huge and heavy lines as thick as my forearm, furling enormous square sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a footrope the width of….a rope.

It re-defines exhaustion working physically hour after hour after hour (even if it’s fun), burning off 7,000 calories a day and still losing weight. Every single action, climbing up and down below decks, cleaning the brass, turning the ship’s wheel, requires exertion.


I recently had lunch with a man I met on LinkedIn, visiting New York from Vancouver. I only knew he is an excellent speaker and hoped he might help me polish a speech. Over a long lunch we discovered that we had both crewed aboard a Tall Ship, he on the Europa and I on Australia’s Endeavour.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sail for free as a journalist, boarding in Norwalk, CT and sailing to Newport, RI for five days. I slept, as we all did, in a tiny narrow white vinyl hammock I had to string up each night….and one night my knots were weak and gave way and I plunged — ouch! — to the floor.

However cliche, you very quickly learn people’s real character when you live so closely and work in such tight teams in an environment of potential extreme danger. One stupid or inattentive move can maim or kill you, and you notice, fast, those who you best stay as far away from as possible.

It was so fun to meet someone who really knew, and equally loved, this odd world. He sailed aboard for three months, (paying about $50 a day for the privilege), even rounding Cape Horn in 40-foot seas.

My trip was much less exciting, although I loved standing the midnight to 4 a.m. watch and steering the ship beneath the stars.

Have you even been on one of these great ships?

Where and when?