To the Lighthouse

Angels Gate Lighthouse. Photo by Heidi Tinsman

I like to experience the sea from multiple planes. Diving in, I visit a hidden world, where humans are guests and the life forms more fantastic the deeper one plunges. Swimming on the surface, my view is the point where water meets air, which I share with paddling birds, frolicking dolphins and the occasional curious pinniped. Standing on a paddleboard, I can gaze down into the ocean and watch those same creatures as they dive underneath me, or I can look far to the horizon to where the cerulean earth bends out of sight. Sitting in a kayak, I’m on the water but not in it, at sea level but dry. By kayak, I can cover more miles more quickly than by other routes. Saturday, I paddled to the lighthouse.

As my friend Heidi and I pulled our boats into San Pedro Bay at the Cabrillo Beach boat ramp, an osprey wheeled overhead. I took it as an auspicious sign, pun intended. These brown and white hunters are my favorite birds primarily because, like me, they love the water. There’s one, and sometimes two, that hang out near the ramp, perhaps hoping for catch dropped by fishermen. They also like to patrol the inner curve of the outer beach, right outside my windows. I love to watch them hover in place, their wings cupping the air, meaty legs aimed toward potential prey – treading air like we tread water. Their dive is quick and sudden; its force can take them all the way below the surface. Sometimes I see them fly by with fish dangling from their talons, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. This is another thing I like about osprey; they are pescatarians. They basically just eat fish, sometimes a frog or eel that maybe they mistook for a trout. So even though this osprey is circling over a flock of coots and scooters, unlike an eagle, it’s not hunting other birds; it wants what they want – fish.

There’s a slight chop on the water, so we’re unsure how far we should go. We head toward the Lane Victory, the merchant marine vessel docked at the entrance to the main channel into the port. Just off the pilings, a sea lion is repeatedly jumping in circles through the water, like a cat chasing its tail.

There’s no wind or current and the waves are harmless, so we decide to cross the bay to the harbor entrance. “To the lighthouse!” we two feminist professors exclaim, and giggle at our literary joke.

Angels Gate Light has marked the entrance to the City of Angels for 113 years. Perched on the end of the rock jetty that protects Los Angeles Harbor, it’s an elegant black and white building that was refurbished several years ago. On this day, after the rains have rinsed the air, it seems to positively gleam against the blue sky and water. Also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse, its light and horn keep the giant cargo ships from running into the jetty. For them, it marks the entrance to the port; for Heidi and me, it’s the exit to the open sea.

We paddle past the lighthouse into the Pacific, just for a look. The waves are still big out here. To our left the ocean is a parking lot of cargo ships waiting for a port berth. COVID infections and restrictions have slowed the unloading process on the docks, and record numbers of ships have been left waiting. A couple weeks ago 55 of these giant container ships had to navigate 17-foot waves. Please politicians, give essential workers their vaccines.

Staring straight south it’s nothing but blue on blue. There’s something about looking out on the ocean from the edge of land that opens a person up – especially after months of limited mobility, of sheltering in place, of lockdown. The options are endless here; it’s the “sea of possibilities,” as Patti Smith sang on the song called “Land.”

Then a fishing boat comes racing in from the ocean, passing too close and too fast. Behind us, a majestic wooden ship, the Zapata II, has all its sails flying and is coming up remarkably quick. I paddle back to the lighthouse to get out of the way, but the wakes from the two vessels merge around me and suddenly I’m pitching up and down, waves breaking over my bow, feeling like a very small vessel in a very busy urban port.

Back in the bay and, literally, even keeled, we take one last look around before retracing our, er, steps. The view from the kayak is like being in the bottom of a landscape painting. To the east, the mountains are dressed in a thick layer of snow. The white triangular arches of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge that connects Los Angeles to Long Beach are architectural echoes of Big Bear. Below them the red and white cranes of the loading docks also reach to the sky. We’re sitting in the ocean, looking up at snow-covered mountains and the engineering marvels of one of the world’s busiest ports.

I love LA.

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Pep Rally Cover Story

I also neglected to post that my “This Is Not a Pep Rally” blog became a cover story for Random Lengths, part of their excellent coverage of BLM protests in San Pedro.

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Cougar Town

I neglected to post the article I wrote about the mountain lions of Los Angeles for LMU Magazine. Here it is!

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The tide is low

Alex and I are at the tide pools. According to the Surfline app, it’s almost low tide. Our assignment today is to practice awareness – one of the essential values we gain from nature, according to Sigurd Olson, the 20th century naturalist of Minnesota’s boundary waters. We are focusing on the micro, not the macro – the trees, not the forest, or rather the tide pool, not the ocean. We are trying to see beyond abstract first impressions, the concrete details beneath the surface.

It’s a bit hard to concentrate. We may be in nature, but we are definitely not away from it all. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, a day of sunny calm amid a week of winter storms, and I haven’t been around this many people for a pandemic minute. Families are swarming the rocks; the only thing ensuring social distancing is the six-foot-wide tide pool Alex and I are hunkered next to. Alex is my dog: a wiry brown terrier we adopted from the Harbor shelter, full name Alexander Hamilton (my son, Cole Hamilton – really his name – named him). “Hammy” has grown up on these rocks and is deft at getting around on them, when he’s not lying in my lap and nibbling on a piece of kelp. Who knew dogs eat kelp?

“I found a limpet! I found a limpet!” The five-year-olds are better at this than I am. They scurry across the rocks exclaiming their treasures. Alex eyes them warily then looks up at me, brown eyes big with sympathy.

I chose to hone in on a tide pool today after the sea smashed my first plan: to observe it from a paddleboard. I couldn’t get my big fiberboard Naish past the surf break; every sixth wave crashed too far out, and I almost wound up somersaulting though the surf with my board and paddle. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so already wet, I swam around for a half hour, semi searching the ocean floor for the favorite water bottle the wave snatched. A few hours later, I’m back, awaiting low tide.

What I see in my pool:

  • Pinkish purple lichen-like coral: a forest of tiny aquatic bonsai, rooted on a rock. (I look it up later: coral weed.)
  • Putrid-green seaweed; tastes like chicken, Alex says.
  • Vivid green sea grass, spread like mermaid hair.
  • Bigger – two-foot-long – trunks of dark green kelp; the sequoia of the tide pool. (Feather boa kelp.)
  • Dozens of snail shells on the opposite shore. (Periwinkle.) Most seem to be empty but a few move quickly: homes purloined by hermit crabs. Why are they called hermits when I always see them in clusters?
  • Yellow foam bubbles cling to the top of the vegetation. Natural or industrial pollution?
  • I see limpets!
  • Some of the rocks are psychedelic in their multitude of colors: yellow, pink, green, white, painted with lichen of varying shades and textures.
  • Peering deeper, I see a lavender shell – a whelk?

You have to look up sometimes too. Just 20 feet away, a bird is hunting the shore’s edge. It walks in long strides on stilt legs and dips its equally long beak into the water, pulling up a tiny shore crab, whose eight legs wave in the air. Gray with a white chest, it’s a willet, or a plover, or some kind of shore bird. It could be a Monty Python character, straight out of the department of silly walks. I look it up later; first guess was right, a willet.

I look down one last time and realize there is a fish right below me, probably there the whole time. It’s camouflaged black and green on the pond’s bottom, like a mud guppy. It’s small, maybe two inches, and darts into thin water when I bring my finger close. (A sculpin.)

Instead of getting lower, the tide is coming in, a steady stream back into my pool now, whose rocks and limpets will be underwater again in a few hours. Clouds cover the sun and it’s getting cold – winter is back. Alex is restless. He’s already gotten up once, searched for some fresher greenery, then shoved my pen aside with his nose and crawled back into my lap, as if to say, “Focus on this.” We call it a day. Back home I thumb through the pictures in my new guides and try to identify everything I wrote down in my journal. So much to see, so much to learn.

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A new day, a new dawn

It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life.

The first few minutes, I think I’m crazy. The water at Cabrillo Beach is never what a sane person would call warm. A deep trough off the shore provides a steady chill stream. And then there’s the wind. The channel off Point Fermin is nicknamed Hurricane Gulch for a reason. If you swim in the afternoon you have to watch out for the windsurfers that tack back and forth, into the shore and out toward Catalina. This time of year, the sea temperature hovers around 57 Fahrenheit. Even with a wetsuit on, the cold stabs at your face and fingers. When I first dive in, “I can’t do this” is my immediate reaction — every time, every day — even though I know I can. It takes a good 100 strokes for me to acclimate. And then I can’t stop.

Water has always been my element. I stumble on land, am scared to be high in the sky, but take to the sea like a fish. Still, I never thought I’d be an ocean swimmer. Body surfer, sure. Lake swimmer, yes. But for the first several decades of my life, I stayed close to shore even when catching the big waves. Then I moved next to Cabrillo Beach.

Cabrillo is a half-circle bay bordered by the cliffs of Point Fermin on the west and an artificial jetty of rocks on the east. Actually, it’s two beaches: The outer one I just described faces the Pacific, and the inner stretch faces San Pedro Bay, aka the Los Angeles harbor. The inner beach, also called Mother’s Beach, generally gets an F from Save the Bay because let’s face it, it’s a city beach with little ocean current. Tankers barrel in and out. Boats anchored in multiple marinas dump crap, literally.

But the outer beach earns an A, thanks to that gulch. I paddle the inside but only swim in the outside.

Swimming is not just exercise; it’s meditation. I count my strokes like a yogi counts breaths. The strokes are breaths too, of course: nose up for air every four counts. I’m scarcely alone out there: The Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears, a club that sponsors a New Year’s Day plunge, keep an orange buoy moored several hundred yards off shore, with a thermometer letting visitors know yes, it really is still 57. Sometimes I run into neighbors out at the buoy, stop and ask them how their family is doing. The first several times I swam to the buoy, it seemed impossibly far, and I clung to a boogie board for safety. Eventually I graduated to no board, just flippers, then no flippers. Nowadays, I swim right past the buoy and keep going.

These days, I need that swim more than ever. There’s a kind of ecstasy I get, pulling my body through the water, watching my hands cut through the sun on the surface, or lying on my back and staring up at the sky. And then there are the days when I think I am alone out there, in my groove, a trance — and suddenly, a dolphin swims right underneath me, or I roll over and discover I’m in the midst of a chattering porpoise pod.

The joke in my neighborhood is that we live in a small town called San Pedro. When I look across the inner beach and see the cranes and cargo ships of one of the busiest ports in the world, I know that I also live in a big city called Los Angeles. But when I’m out there in the ocean, floating alongside the kelp forest, I feel one with the world.

Of course today was a day to feel wonder and unity: a new dawn, a new day, a new life — “fish in the sea, you know how I feel.” A day of unity, of the renewal of accords and the return of water rights, of embracing the great middle of our country and its edges, of poetry and music, of a cowboy’s grace, of seasons of love, of a Boricuan from around the Bronx block singing this land is your land, a land of hope and dreams. The first day a woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, became second in command of the United States. Hallelujah.

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Mi casa es tu casa

Lake Superior sunset

Eh, not so big.

Note: For varying reasons, my husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 29: Every year when we journey to Michigan, there is always that thrilling moment when we first see the Lake. Usually, we get it driving up from the south: topping a hill we see a dark blue horizon, almost indistinguishable from the sky. Smudged, indigo, almost invisible, it’s not an object, it’s an expanse.

My husband and I have been trying to prepare our grandson for the enormity of Lake Superior. Like most people, Shine thinks of lakes as small bodies of fresh water where you can see the other shore. We’ve seen a lot of those on our cross-country trip, especially in Minnesota — land of 1,000 of them, after all. (But who’s counting.) We’ve explained that Superior looks more like an ocean, like the Atlantic and the Pacific, which he knows well: no land on the other side, as far as you can see.

Because we are coming in from the West this trip, we first see the Lake in the port towns of Duluth/Superior, as a finger of water between ore docks and marinas. “There it is: Lake Superior!” Bud and I exclaim. “Eh, not so big,” shrugs Shine, ever the skeptic.

It is not until we get that northward view from the hill on M64, and then arrive upon the Superior shore itself in Silver City, Michigan, that he really sees the Lake — and is finally suitably impressed. Still, “eh, not so big” becomes a running joke of the summer.

Ashland Food Coop

Evidence of the pandemic has been unavoidable on this trip, constantly made palpable by presences (masks, radio commercials for online education, “closed” signs on stores) and absences (seats at restaurants, international travelers, traffic). Less evident have been the other seismic crises and changes affecting our country, namely police violence against black bodies and the resulting protest movement. In Los Angeles, the uprising had largely eclipsed the pandemic for weeks before we left town. Black Lives Matter signs, or their close kin, were everywhere, on stores, cars, homes, lips, and airwaves. I don’t think I’ve seen one BLM message since I left California — so I was elated to find a rainbow flag with the message “Everyone welcome” at the food coop in Ashland, Wisconsin. Finally, a sign of progress.

I haven’t even seen Biden signs across these nine states. Trump signs, yes. The only good news I can offer in regards to this admittedly unscientific evidence of America’s current political state is that there are fewer Trump signs than four years ago. Still, the change that seems necessary and inevitable on the coast is at best a whisper in the heartland — and that scares the shit out of me. Much work needs to be done if we are to wrest this country out of the hands of a maniacal hatemonger, and it won’t be achieved through silence.

We arrive at our cabin around 5 p.m. I’m always amazed just how beautiful this tiny house, with its natural edge pine siding echoing the waves of the lake 50 feet from its door, is. Built by Bud, it is filled inside and out with small tokens of love and beauty, from driftwood door handles to an Italian chandelier he salvaged from a Greek client to a leaded glass window we found at Habitat for Humanity in Miami.

The cabin that Bud built.

Above the door on the inside is a sign that I had bought on LA’s Olvera Street for Mom, a sign she had told me she always wanted, and that I inherited — along with the land on which we built this cabin — when she died: “Mi casa es tu casa.”  Imagine if this familiar welcoming Spanish phrase were America’s and Americans’ motto, hung at every portal to and in our nation: My home is your home. That was certainly Mom’s philosophy, as a public high school teacher in a small Midwestern town, and the philosophy Bud and I try to carry with us wherever we go, as we cross a country we still believe is great, albeit imperiled.

Welcome home.

Coda: The day after our arrival in the Upper Peninsula, we got drive-through coronavirus tests at Ontonagon High School. Not wanting to bring the pandemic to a county that at that point had yet to have a single verified case, we quarantined until we got the results two days later: negative. Sadly, Ontonagon County did get its first case a few days after that — but so far, just the one.

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Singing sad sad songs

One silver lining of Covid-19: cheap gas in Minnesota

Note: For varying reasons, my husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 28: Our last night on the road, we stopped in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. On our way to the hotel, we picked up a pizza from a lakeside restaurant. For a moment, I had a fantasy of normal life. The two-man band at the outside bar was playing Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” a song I love. I wanted so much to go in, have a drink, sway to the music, chat with the locals — as if there were no pandemic keeping us all apart, just music, pizza, beer, and good times.

Then the band finished the song that I will always associate with another apocalypse — “tall buildings shake, voices escaping singing sad sad songs.” Standing outside on the sidewalk with the dog, I was the only person who clapped. Because the bar may be open, but it is empty. Just because the orchestra is still playing doesn’t mean the ship isn’t sinking.

We had a long day driving across Montana and North Dakota — always a relentless stretch. “North Dakota killed me,” said a German biker we picked up one year at the Cowboy Bar in Medora. He was trying to ride cross country, but the long empty highways of the Peace Garden State (?!) did him and his bike in, and we wound up giving him a ride to Billings. We stopped in Medora as usual this year, but instead of breakfast at the Cowboy Bar, we made lunch at a park outside of town — which was just as nice in its own way. The town was too full of tourists, too empty of masks. Like Utah, Montana, and Wyoming, North Dakota has seen a rise in coronavirus cases.

But as we entered the Midwest, we began to see a shift. The ideology of freedom was replaced by the practicality of health. Minnesotans were wearing masks, or at least not looking at you strange if you were wearing one. Unless, of course, they were singing sad sad songs.

 

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