P22 is dead, long live his impact

At the celebration for the late catamount P22 at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, tribal elder Alan Salazar spoke about how his people – the Chumash and Tataviam – divide themselves into different animal clans. Since I can remember, I have felt myself to be a member of the mountain lion clan. As a child, I read and watched everything I could about the mysterious, majestic “ghost cats,” with their tawny fur, striking Gen X-worthy facial hair, silent stealth, deadly strength, and ridiculously cute spotted kittens. I even started my own novel about one (the first of too many unfinished manuscripts to come). I had feline fever in general – the cat child to grow up into the cat lady. But I was particularly drawn to pumas, in part because they are the only big cat found in multiple areas of the United States, but mostly because one of the places they have long thrived is California. I am a third-generation Cali girl who was abducted by my parents and relocated to a small Midwestern town when I was just four years old. Panthers were my people; I went to the library and visited them in books.

It took me four decades to come back home. Just a few years after my return, LA welcomed another new resident, this one with a Los Angeles Times front-page story: a mountain lion rather dorkily named P22. The P stood for puma, one of the many names given to Puma concolor. The number indicated his ranking in a study of his breed taking place in the Santa Monica Mountains. Except this handsome fellow wasn’t with the rest of his kind in the hills between the San Fernando Valley and the Pacific Ocean: He was in the middle of Griffith Park.

Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation spoke at the P22 celebration.

Over the next 10 years P22 became a cause celebre and a celebrity. Instead of freaking out about an apex predator in their midst, Angelenos rallied around this cat of mystery who somehow snuck through suburbs and across multilane interstates and past In-N-Out Burgers to shack up in a park that’s ample for humans but litter-box-sized for a big cat. Amazingly, for a decade, he sustained himself on park deer and the occasional house pet and koala – a long life for a cougar. The world rallied around P22. He became the poster kitty for the preservation of this imperiled population of pumas, his image used to raise funds for the biggest wildlife crossing in the world, now being built across Highway 101.

Like so many of us, I watched all the stories about his sightings and misadventures, his sickness and his chihuahua snacks. I even got to write one of those stories, for LMU Magazine, interviewing Beth Pratt – the National Wildlife Federation organizer and writer who has led the efforts to create the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, and Jeff Sikich, one of the NPS rangers leading the study that gave P22 his moniker.

I knew that at 12 years old, P22 had probably lived out eight of his nine lives. So I wasn’t shocked in December when he was found in a back yard in Los Feliz, injured from a car crash, emaciated, dying. Still, I cried when I heard he was euthanized. And I wept a couple times yesterday, at the celebration in the park that was his home.

The sold-out event featured speeches from Pratt, Sikich, and many of the scientists, activists, artists, citizens, politicians and schoolchildren who loved him, including the musician Diplo, representatives Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu, and actors Rainn Wilson and Julia Butters. It was so LA. And I loved it. With people – okay, mostly women – dressed in cat ears and tails, I felt a little like I was at Cougar ComiCon. Like I had found my clan.

The Tokens perform “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

Sure the event was sappy, goofy, long. Exhibit A: The descendants of the Tokens played their hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” But the overall message was important and timely. As Sikich said, this wasn’t just a memorial for a Hollywood star: it was a “celebration of coexistence.” That was the theme sounded over and over, that there is no such thing as wild, as one speaker remarked; “it’s all home.” As Salazar said, we have to move from a policy of extermination to a “policy of living in harmony.”

Cougars have always symbolized the place of my birth to me, but I would never have imagined that one would become the most famous animal since Lassie, as P22 was called, in the years of my homecoming. The king of Griffith Park is dead, but long live the mark he made on the world – including an in-progress safe passage for his kin and other animals, and a changed understanding of human’s relationship to our fellow animals.

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What “What She Means” Meant

What She Means, the exhibit inspired by the life and work of Joan Didion, is at the Hammer Museum until February 19. You can read my article about it in the January edition of High Country News.

“By following the chronology of Didion’s life, “What She Means” reveals the transformation of the California girl into the American woman — once you figure out the organizing premise and settle into the work.”

The “Holy Water” room

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RIP the mountain lion king

He was a handsome, mysterious, Hollywood recluse who kept mostly to himself except sometimes at night, when Ring alerts would warn that he was lurking in driveways. He was a loner by force, maybe by choice. He was a bit of a bad boy, probably dining on koala at the Los Angeles Zoo one night, definitely making off with a pet chihuahua recently. P22, the world’s most famous mountain lion, was a magnificent animal. When I heard that he had been euthanized today, I wept.

Illustration by Matthew Twombly for LMU Magazine

I wrote about my lifelong infatuation with panthers a couple years ago for LMU Magazine. P22 was the poster boy for the endangered Santa Monica Mountains population. He was the rare Hollywood political beast who effected real change: The saga of his voyage to and isolated plight in Griffith Park captivated people around the globe. Because of him, and the tireless advocacy of people like Beth Pratt at Save LA Cougars and biologists Jeff Sikich and Seth Riley, the world’s biggest wildlife crossing is currently being built across Highway 101. It will hopefully not only prevent animals from being hit as they cross this dangerous roadway; most importantly, it will offer a connection between the animals that are stranded on the west side of the 101 — and are facing extinction through in-breeding — with the larger, healthier population to the north and east.

Pratt wrote a moving eulogy to the animal she dubbed “the Brad Pitt of the cougar world”; you can read it here. As she says, P22 taught us how wild animals and humans can coexist — until he was hit by a car, that is. Injuries sustained from that and a series of other ailments forced his caretakers to make the heartbreaking decision to put him down. He lived an unusually long life for a puma: 12 years. But that he lost his life in part because of a moving vehicle is especially tragic — and so LA.

Hopefully his heritage will not just be his individual fame, but a recognition of the magnificence of all these American felines — and of their vulnerability. Goodbye P22. Pass gently over the rainbow bridge, and apologize to the koala and chihuahua!

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People Have the PowerPoint

Patti Smith was radiant and fierce in her performance at the Saban Theatre Monday night. I’ve been to dozens of shows by the writer and musician during the last three decades; at this Songs & Stories event for the Aloud series of the Los Angeles Public Library, I saw aspects of her I had never seen before. First of all, she had a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint “to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools.” (Sorry, that was my riff on her anthem “People Have the Power,” not hers.) Smith clicked through images from her new book, A Book of Days, projected on a screen behind her as she told stories, jokes, and history lessons and sang songs, accompanied by longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan. Actually, an unseen technician advanced the slides for her; Smith laughed about this tour being her first experience with presentation software. In fact, despite her 75 years on the planet, the award-winning author is no Luddite. Book of Days is inspired by Smith’s third act as a social media influencer; her daily Instagram account, ThisIsPattiSmith, has 1 million followers. “I’m not capable of being square,” she said Monday.

(As an aside, my 2021 Los Angeles Times article about Patti’s online renaissance during the pandemic took a second place prize at the National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards presented Sunday night by the Los Angeles Press Club.)

Patti was funny and sharp and sentimental Monday. She offered professional advice: to develop your “writer’s muscle” by having a “daily practice.” Hers is to get up every morning, grab a coffee, and open a notebook, she revealed. Appropriately, Monday was Joan Didion’s birthday; Smith and Shanahan played Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” for the writer. “When I think of dark glasses, I think of Joan Didion and Bob Dylan,” she said. In response to an audience question, she spoke about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was young, revealing that they are in each other’s lives “but she’s very private.” Answering another inquiry, she said, “Michigan is where I had the saddest and most beautiful times of my life. I cherish them all.”

In her eighth decade, Smith is just getting better and more appreciated. She is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, with the headline “The Radical Hope of Patti Smith.” Her voice is more assured, rich, and beautiful than ever. She and Shanahan delivered a stunning version of their 2004 song “Peaceable Kingdom.” But probably my favorite moment of the night was when he goaded her into singing, a capella, a holiday chestnut from her childhood by the Ray Coniff Singers. Roll the tape.

Speaking of Patti Smith cover stories, the first one I wrote was published 27 years ago by The Village Voice.

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On Joan Didion’s birthday

Photo by Evelyn McDonnell of mural in Sacramento

Eighty-eight years ago in Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, a girl became the first child of Eduene Jerrett and Frank Reese Didion. Joan Didion grew up to be a courageous, award-winning, world-renowned pioneer of literary journalism and crafter of brilliant, surprising novels. In all her travels, even as she spent her last decades in New York, she remained bound to her Central Valley roots. “As I thought about it I realized that I have been writing about the California woman all my adult life, that what it means to be a California woman has been a great question to me – the California woman has been – if not exactly my subject – at least quite certainly my material,” she said in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. This is the first December 5 that she has not been on this earth to celebrate her birthday. Let’s honor it for her by being relentless in our reporting and kind in our relationships.

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Memorial to Joan Didion

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” These words from the Episcopal doxology comforted Joan Didion her whole life. She was raised in the religion and although she became someone who believed in the power of narrative, the primacy of family, the joy of cooking, Buddhist philosophy, and the California sky more than any deity, she still found solace in this mantra and in the gothic beauty of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York’s upper west side, where her daughter married, her husband’s memorial was held, and her remains are now entombed. Yesterday the life of the writer, who died December 23, 2021, at the age of 87, was honored there in a simple and moving memorial of speeches and music delivered by a formidable list of Didion’s family, friends, colleagues, and admirers. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (who grew up with Joan in Sacramento), former California governor Jerry Brown, filmmaker/actor Griffin Dunne (her nephew), actor Vanessa Redgrave, and writers David Remnick, Calvin Trillin, Jia Tolentino, Hilton Als, and Kevin Young all offered words of reminiscence and reflection. Patti Smith sang. Organized primarily by Didion’s editor Shelley Wanger, it was a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual, and sometimes deeply sad service, a fitting farewell to one of the greatest writers of the past century.

Two women who knew Didion intimately offered portraits of their friend that to me captured her as a human and a thinker in very different but accurate ways. Author Susanna Moore (Miss Aluminum) recalled the terse but memorable advice given to her over decades by this woman who wrote intensely but spoke little, including “Write it again,” “Crazy is never interesting,” and “Evil is the absence of seriousness.” Susan Traylor, who met Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo Dunne when they were both four and became best friends forever, told funny, heartwarming stories of how Joan became a kind of second mother to her, stricter than her own but a supportive rock in hard times. Tales of a mom who served chocolate souffle to children because she didn’t know how to make a birthday cake and sang silly songs about mice way past their age-appropriateness revealed the fabled lover of irony as a warm, awkward human being.  

I was surprised the cathedral wasn’t overflowing with Didion’s notoriously devoted followers, but perhaps that was because the memorial, months in the planning, was just announced last week. The luminaries and publishing people seated up front almost outnumbered the general public in back and included Fran Lebowitz, Anjelica Huston, Liam Neeson, Greta Gerwig, Carl Bernstein, Annie Leibovitz, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Sara Davidson, and Lynn Nesbit. I was honored and humbled to be in their midst.

No one from Didion’s family spoke. I’ve spent the past year researching and writing about Joan for a book, and I have learned that she comes from a lineage that prizes privacy. There were also only a handful of people in the columbarium afterwards, looking for the square piece of granite engraved with the names of Joan, her mother Eduene Jerrett Didion, her husband John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. It was bereft of flowers. I’ll go back with a lei, for the woman who loved Hawaii and its tradition of dropping flowered necklaces to honor the deceased. “Leis go brown,” Didion wrote.  “Tectonic plates shift, deep currents move, islands vanish, rooms get forgotten.” Words survive.

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Sweet dreams are made of meh

Meh.

I’m happy for Annie Lennox, Carly Simon, Pat Benatar, Sylvia Robinson, Elizabeth Cotten, and of course Dolly Parton, now that she’s realized what even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee knows: She rocks. I’m also thrilled about Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

But I’m gutted that nominees Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush and A Tribe Called Quest didn’t make this year’s class of inductees. Overall, I’d say it’s a respectably varied but rather mediocre year for the Rock Hall (especially after the thrills of last year). In terms of progress toward diversity and inclusion, the gains are, well, losses overall.

My research assistant, Loyola Marymount University student Maude Bascome-Duong, and I did our annual numbers crunching, and this is what we found: Of the 28 musicians and industry figures being inducted, six are women (listed above). NPR erroneously stated that’s a record: In fact last year, seven women were inducted. 21.43 percent of this year’s inductees are women; again, that’s better than many previous years but lower than 2021’s 28 percent. The good news is the total percentage of women in the hall continues to rise, ever so slowly: From 8.17 percent to 8.56 percent. Yay, we gained 0.39 percent! Guess I’ll stop worrying about losing control over my own health decisions and throw a rock hall dance party! Sweet dreams indeed!

SCRRRREEETTCCHHH! (That’s the sound of a needle skating across an album, my millennials.)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame diversity statistics, number of inductees per year.

Feminism requires an understanding of the intersection of identities, as we all know. So, how is the hall doing in terms of racial diversity? Worse than meh.

By our count, six of the inductees are BIPOC (Robinson, Cotten, Jam, Lewis, Belafonte and Lionel Richie). That’s a 14.57 percent drop from 2021 and part of a long-term slide from the hall’s early years, when minorities were often a majority, to this year’s accumulative total of 31.79 percent, down from 2021’s 32.38 percent. So in terms of diversity, that’s .39 percent forward ladies, .59 percent backwards for non-white artists.

Let’s put it this way: Dionne Warwick, Salt N Pepa, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Queen Latifah, Big Mama Thornton, Roxanne Shante, Chaka Khan, and Mary J. Blige are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But now, Duran Duran is.

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