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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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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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Rock Hall: How about a little bit of ladies first?

My research assistant, Maude Bascome-Duong, and I finally had some time to crunch the numbers on the Rock & Roll Hall Hall of Fame nominations for 2022 and the results are mixed. While I applaud the nominating committee for putting Dolly Parton, the Eurythmics, Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush, Carly Simon and Pat Benatar on the ballot, numbers wise, the selection field still skews predominantly male.

Dionne Warwick

More than a third of the acts have female members, and all of those six acts have their women front and center. Not bad! But when you look at the total number of potential inductees, women account for only 12.77% of the nominees. (This is the more important number, because every living inductee gets a vote.) Yes this is higher than the current percentage of women already inducted into the Hall of Fame, but we need an infusion of women to be inducted to get their total percentage into the double digits. As I’ve argued before, this can only happen if the Hall of Fame inducts more female groups. We need the six women of Fanny to be inducted to begin to balance out the four men of Rage Against the Machine. The nominating committee seems to have a particular allergy to all female acts: Once again there are none on this year’s ballot. Fear of a female planet?

The other most egregious omission is any female rapper. The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

The nominees are also more than 80% white. I repeat: The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

Here are four acts that better be on next year’s ballot or I’m calling for a Lysistrata: Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Labelle, and Fanny. Also for goddess’s sake, induct Big Mama Thorton as an early influencer this year. In Janet Jackson’s immortal words: Induct more women.

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The man who taught me the art of the lede

On February 5 the man who first taught me to be a journalist passed. There is no greater testimony to the profound impact Raymond Schoenfield had on me than the fact I became a journalist, and then a journalism teacher. Schoeny, as his students at Beloit Memorial High School knew him, had the number one quality to be a good instructor: love of subject. In class, in the offices of the student newspaper The Increscent after school, in passing in the hall, Schoeny would always ask your opinion of the latest news, or pull you aside to recommend a good book. I went on to get a BA at Brown and a Master’s in Journalism at USC, but no one taught me more than this pale, tall, high school professor with the big glasses and thinning combover. He and social studies teacher Lloyd Page treated us teenagers as intellectual equals and guided us to be critical thinkers. Schoeny made the Increscent offices a sanctuary for nerds and misfits. I was the editor in chief my senior year, and my bestie Cindy Hahn – not a nerd, but still one of us — was my girl Friday. There was a whole wonderful cast of characters there. It was a haven not just for writers, but for photographers, cartoonists, designers, sales people, etc. We would skip pep rallies and hang out with Schoeny. He was our Gandalf, a benevolent father figure with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. But he was also very serious about teaching the importance of good journalism, and the Increscent had the awards to show for it. He taught me to think deeply about literature and writing. I wrote a paper comparing Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata under his direction, which is a pretty crazy thing to do in a public high school in a small Midwestern town, and his high praise made me want to be a critic.

I last saw Schoeny when I was inducted into the Beloit Memorial Hall of Fame, which I think he had not a little to do with. He lost his eyesight in his later years, which seemed like the cruelest twist of fate: this voracious reader, blinded. His wife Joyce was always by his side, and he was proud of his kids. If you want to do something about the future of journalism, join me in donating to the scholarship fund in his name. https://statelinecf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1223

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Rock Hall on a roll?

Last night’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony gave me hope for the future of the institution. Opening the show with Taylor Swift inducting Carole King was a brilliant choice perfectly timed given the week of Tay-Tay trending. And how great was it to start the evening with King’s classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the first song performed by an all black all female group (The Shirelles) to reach number one in the United States. King, Tina Turner, and the Go-Go’s were my three top choices among this year’s nominees and all three made it in. The selections covered a diverse array of genres and eras, from a Brill building songwriter and singer to Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations to hip-hop pioneers Jay-Z , LL Cool J and Gil Scott-Heron. There was even a sui generis rock band, the Foo Fighters. I loved the generosity of the evening, the way rappers honored rock and roll and rockers honored hip hop. And I loved the repeated displays of girl power.

But — and given that I am a Rock Hall scold, you knew there had to be a butt — I’m still immensely disappointed that the Rock Hall had to undermine the gender parity of the acts inducted in the main categories by only inducting men in the supplemental categories. I also think it was a programming error to end the evening with Foo Fighters instead of Jay-Z, although I admit it allowed me to go to bed a little bit earlier. I’m not saying that Foo Fighters didn’t deserve to be inducted (they didn’t), but Hova’s speech was so powerful, funny and moving, it was the high note note we should have ended with. Closing with a rap act also would have signaled once and for all that the Rock Hall is inclusive of all the genres that have been birthed since the integration of music in the 1950s and 60s. (Fuck you Gene Simmons.) I understand that the hall probably wanted to close with Paul McCartney, who inducted the Foo Fighters. But Paul seemed more like everyone’s favorite drunk uncle (at least we got that tradition out of the way for Thanksgiving week) than a great finale.

What would have been real fire would have been to end with the usual all-star band playing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Can you imagine Jay-Z and LL Cool J trading off verses on Gil Scott-Heron’s classic proto rap? With Carole King on piano! Plus the Go-Go’s as backing singers?! Instead we got the usual tired narrative of rock and roll through the lens of white men.

Because, of course, the revolution can not be televised.

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The power of Patti

No artist has had a bigger lifelong influence on me than Patti Smith. She showed me a new way of being when I was a struggling teenager and in the four decades since has remained an example of how to move through the universe pursuing your artistic dreams and personal values. I’ll never forget the first time we connected in real life: I just about lost it when I hit play on my answering machine and heard her voice. I first interviewed her back in 1995, when she was just beginning to perform again after taking a long pause to raise her kids, and then mourn her husband; that became my one and only Village Voice cover story.

Patti Smith at Pappy & Harriet’s Aug. 31.

It had been many years since we last spoke, so I shrieked once more when I listened to a voice mail at work and it was Patti. She is the only celebrity I know who responds to interview requests by calling journalists directly, rather than scheduling an interview through flacks. I happened to be in a small Minneapolis town in the midst of a cross country drive when I called her back, and as I left her a message, a train drove by, blowing its whistle. “Nice train soundtrack,” Patti texted me.

We eventually had an hourlong, somewhat discursive talk, the highlights of which made it to my Los Angeles Times story. As in ’95, she’s back from another pause – this one pandemic forced, not lifestyle chosen — and I felt honored to be the person chronicling her return. We talked a lot about the climate, but none of that discussion made the story. “We’re living in the midst of enormous, enormous crisis environmentally, in every way, whether it’s flooding or drought or fires,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a species because the only way it’s going to work is for us to globally respect…. And I feel for our children.”

This week, from Tahoe to New Orleans to the Northeast, Americans are struggling under the devastating effect of Anthropocene folly. Smith, who has had two of her few shows since 2020 cancelled partially or completely because of severe summer storms, seems to be a bit of a rainmaker. As my husband and I drove to Pioneertown to see her Aug. 31 show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sky darkened and suddenly, there were flash flood warnings in the middle of the desert, during a mega drought. The outdoor show was postponed a half hour; only a little rain fell, but the wind was powerful. Patti took the continued disruption in good humor, accepting mother nature howling in the mikes as unexpected backing vocals.

Still, it was all a little unnerving. As the world knows from her infamous performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, Smith has a habit of losing her place; there were a lot of forgotten words and misstarts at Pappy’s. Also, a lot of laughter between her, her son Jackson on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on piano, bass, guitar, and vocals. The hipster honkytonk is one of my favorite places in the world, so it was amazing to see her there, in such a small venue. Her voice is stronger than ever, so deep and rich. Still, it was a bit of a ramshackle performance. Patti admitted she was wearing her “pandemic pants”: bleach stained, loose, and comfy. The crowd loved her, she loved them back.

Tony Shanahan, Flea, Patti Smith, and Jackson Smith at the Ford Sept. 3.

Friday at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills – another one of my favorite venues – they played an almost identical set, but it was a totally different show. Flea joined on bass, giving the band a bottom they needed (though I still missed Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty). Smith’s messy braids were gone, though a couple times during the night, she started to plait her long salt and pepper locks again. So were the pandemic pants – but she did have to button up her fly after the first song, “Grateful.” It was a perfect California night, the palm trees and hillside behind the band lit up like a fairytale grotto. Patti was still joking and informal; when Flea left the stage at one point, she explained he had to pee. But there were only a couple stumbles. Patti was on fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her deliver as note perfect a performance as her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “1000 Miles Behind.” Smith is well celebrated for her shamanistic performance style and poetic lyrics, but she is not as appreciated as she should be for the timbre and power of her voice. She also covered Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and dedicated her reggae song “Redondo Beach” to the late Lee Scratch Perry.

Patti Smith and Flea at the Ford.

By the end of the evening, for a rendition of “Land” that was a bricolage of itself, Smith seemed to be in a trance. Even Jackson looked at her with a mix of awe and concern. Seeing her perform with her offspring beside her and still be so unapologetically herself is another life lesson she has given me. You could see in the eclectic, female-friendly audience how many of us have followed Patti into, as she puts it, the “sea of possibilities.” (Though she told me in the Times interview that she can’t swim; does this mean she has never actually pissed in a river?)

She closed both shows with the song that has become her most celebrated anthem, even more than “Because the Night” (which she also performed): “People Have the Power.” Once the pied piper of misfits, Patti Smith is now, as she likes to call, herself a worker. Happy Labor Day weekend.

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Sea lubber

Little by little. I keep telling myself that. Take it slow. Patience is not this patient’s virtue. I want to run, dive, swim underwater as long as I can hold my breath, and then do the crawl straight out to the horizon until I don’t feel the cold of the Pacific anymore. That’s my usual mode of immersion — well, okay, I do more of a shuffle-for-stingrays than a run. But lately, nothing has been usual.

My biggest fear about having surgery was not being able to swim. You might as well lock me up in a dungeon if you are going to deprive me of water. It’s my exercise, meditation, therapy, habit, and habitat. Keep me on land too long, and I dry out like a slug.

So when I first stuck my toes back in the Pacific after four weeks of exile, I could feel my flesh rehydrating. As I walked gingerly through the wash, the life force ran up my legs to electro-charge my failing heart and douse my brain with dopamine. Two days later, when I had worked up the courage to submerge, I lifted my feet from the earth and lay my body horizontal on salt water. The pain in my core vanished. Freedom from gravity, from the planet’s pull on mass, from the weight of the upper half of my body stacked on the lower half, released my poor, pulverized nerves. The cold Cabrillo water, with its healing salt crystals, worked its medicinal magic. I had been worried that swimming could hurt me, but instead — like it always does — it was my cure.

When I returned to shore from my first wade in the water, a shiny white object beckoned from the wet sand. I thought at first it was a shell, but it turned out to be a different piece of animal: the bone of the top bill of an aquatic fowl, like a duck. Of course, there aren’t generally ducks in the ocean. Gulls, herons, cormorants, pelicans, egrets, sandpipers, and willets — the local species — all have very differently shaped beaks. The mystery bone is a strange, macabre gift but beautiful: delicate, ivory, dotted with pinhole calligraphy. Another masterpiece by Mother Nature.

We are trapped in bodies, until we are not.

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