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Essential California: Meet your new newsletter writer

The sun rises over a highway
The sun rises on the Golden State Highway just south of Fresno.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, June 7. I’m Justin Ray.

When I was a toddler, my family moved to California, where we would stay for nearly a decade. We lived in Alamo, in Contra Costa County, which I don’t remember too well. But I have vivid memories of another house we moved to in Fresno. During our stay there, I had many wonderful experiences, but there was one sad moment I had as a child that taught me about loss, and not knowing what the future holds — albeit at an immensely small scale.

I had no way of knowing then that I’d be telling you about this in my first edition of the Essential California newsletter. But as I look forward to the challenge of writing about this complicated time for the state, I thought you should know something about me — and where this newsletter will be going.

In Fresno, we lived on a farm where we kept our walnut trees watered, and burned smoke bombs in gopher holes. Our next-door neighbor Harold had a grape vineyard; I still remember the smell of his burning paper raisin trays in the night. We had a rabbit. We also had a big backyard with a pool.

It was in that pool that I met my friend Sammy. He was a frog.

I spent hours in the pool with my amphibian amigo. I would put on floaties and swim beside him, in awe of his aquatic skills, the way he effortlessly darted left and right. Even now, I remember how close I felt to him. My older brother had friends who lived close by. All of mine lived farther away and thus seldom visited. But that wasn’t a problem, because I had Sammy. I would hold him like a burger — a dark green one with a blank stare and the occasional grunt. He didn’t mind. Of course he never verbalized his fondness for me, but there was no need, because I just knew.

Then, one day, everything changed. Sammy had gone missing. I searched the entire pool and even the nearby bushes for my frog friend for a few days without success. Then, I checked the basket of our pool skimmer. When I opened the top, I saw his upside-down, lifeless body. I remember the stinging sensation of tears as I stared at his white stomach and splayed legs. I don’t know how he died — maybe it was the chlorine, maybe he got trapped in the filter. Minutes later, I dug a hole and buried my croaking companion. I hadn’t felt so alone, and I didn’t know what I would do without him.

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I’ve been thinking about that moment as I begin my tenure writing Essential California. I don’t know what lies ahead, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about this. Like so many of you, I have been feeling isolated during the pandemic, and reentering society is scary. The responsibility of writing this newsletter is daunting. I cannot help but note that I’m the second Black man being put in a visible place at this paper after a racial reckoning that made headlines last summer. Not only that, I’m a 31-year-old gay man without a family of his own, and with a mom who persistently pushes the topic of grandkids (“You know, Anderson Cooper adopted,” she constantly reminds me). It’s a lot to process.

But I don’t have to process these feelings alone, because I will take this journey with you. That’s the part of my new job I’m most excited about — connecting with readers and forming a bond with them as I chronicle what’s going on in the state. During my tenure, three elements will make up the foundation of this newsletter:

Relevance: I want this newsletter to appeal to anyone interested in what is happening in California. This state carries an outsize influence on the national stage, and we have the potential to identify, explore and start conversations about topics before they enter America’s cultural zeitgeist. My intention is to make my updates something you look forward to reading every day, whether I’m writing about Silicon Valley or gun control.

Inclusivity: The Times’ newsletter team and I recognize that this newsletter can do more to give regions outside Los Angeles the attention they deserve. Of course, I am a Los Angeles Times reporter, and it makes sense that coverage would skew toward the region — but I promise to speak to the experiences of more Californians. For instance, I want to discuss the on-the-ground impact of legislation affecting people who are homeless, and how marginalized groups are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comprehensiveness: One element that has always been part of the newsletter that will remain is our commitment to conveying the important narratives and news coverage. We have tracked stories about homelessness, education, the pandemic and other topics salient to Californians. I’m committed to bringing you the most compelling coverage of issues affecting the 40 million people in our state, and the many millions more who look to its example.

As I take this journey, I hope to initiate a dialogue with you. I want to integrate your thoughts into my newsletter. Please reach out with your comments, concerns or frog-related tales.

And one programming note: I’ll be writing Essential California on Mondays through Thursdays, with other Times reporters contributing on Fridays, and my colleagues Laura Blasey and Daric L. Cottingham delivering the week in review on Saturdays.

A portrait of Essential California author Justin Ray
Justin Ray
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Blood-sucking arachnids are thriving. Ticks carrying Lyme disease are abundant at California beaches in the warmer months. That’s according to four years of field work in California’s San Francisco Bay Area and nearby wine country, Susanne Rust reports. How do these ticks survive? That isn’t clear, but the research might help determine whether Lyme disease — a potentially debilitating tick-borne infection — is on the upswing in the Bay Area and statewide. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

A teachers union vote on cutting aid to Israel. Members of the L.A. teachers union’s leadership body will vote in September on a resolution that would urge the U.S. government to end all aid to Israel. Some critics of Israel welcome the vote as a chance to take a firm stance on the topic. Those who oppose it see the vote as one-sided and insensitive to Jewish students and school employees. Los Angeles Times

“People wake up, lower their pants and go to the bathroom.” Venice homeowners tell Steve Lopez that their neighborhood is no longer safe due to the increasing number of people camping along the boardwalk. The situation was caused by a “failed investment in affordable housing and years of the wealth gap just being ignored,” according to Va Lecia Adams Kellum, chief executive of the nearby St. Joseph Center, which does homeless outreach. Los Angeles Times

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AFTER THE PANDEMIC, A PATH FORWARD

The Times’ editorial board has launched a new series: Reimagine California offers insights and suggestions for how we can make our state (and country) better after a pandemic that claimed the lives of thousands locally and exposed weaknesses in many systems that govern our life.

“To move forward, America must recognize the fractures, weaknesses and inequalities in many of our systems,” writes The Times’ editorial board (which operates separately from the newsroom). “It is imperative that the nation address — not merely acknowledge — the realities we cannot afford to ignore.”

Here are some highlights from the series:

— The government should ensure all citizens have adequate housing. “It’s time to stop talking about ‘beds’ for homeless people — unless they need a hospital bed or a residential mental health facility,” Carla Hall writes. “Homeless people need homes.” Hall argues that this would include protection against forced eviction and legal counsel to people facing eviction.

— The pandemic highlighted flaws in education. For instance, some parents could afford tutors while other students lacked reliable broadband. Karin Klein offers up Switzerland’s paid apprenticeship model as a new way we could make the economy fairer and discontinue using the college degree as a proxy for skill.

— We’re stuck with our capitalist system, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look for ways to make it work for more people, writes Scott Martelle. He explains how we could implement New Deal-style government jobs programs to provide employment to people working part time and reimagine the role played by unions.

— The novel coronavirus easily circulated through jails and prisons due to crowded facilities, spotty sanitation, and lacking health services. In response, state and county justice officials took extraordinary steps to reduce the number of people locked up. But this raises the question: “Why were we keeping them locked up in the first place, if they posed no risk to the outside world?” Robert Greene writes.

The full series can be found here.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

L.A. County reports 285 new cases of the virus. In early April, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California would be able to reopen its economy on June 15, thanks to vaccination rates and low hospitalization numbers. However, less than two weeks away from the big day, the coronavirus continues to spread in Los Angeles County, as 15 new deaths and 285 new cases of the virus were reported Saturday. The deaths are occurring primarily among unvaccinated individuals, said Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director. To assist the vaccination effort, mobile vaccination teams have been deployed at 188 neighborhood sites. Ferrer recently told The Times she wonders whether she could have better protected people living in the county’s poorest neighborhoods throughout the pandemic. Los Angeles Times

Alameda County changed the way coronavirus deaths are recorded. Its death toll dropped from 1,634 to 1,223 after officials decided that the virus has to be directly involved with the death to qualify as a coronavirus death. Previously, Alameda counted anyone who was infected with the virus when they died. Officials made the modification to match state and national definitions, the county’s public health department said in a news release. Mercury News

A conservative talk radio host changes course. Mike Broomhead is a two-time Arizona Trump voter, staunch conservative and onetime supporter of auditing the 2020 election in Maricopa County. Now, his radio show is a daily recitation of how the effort became a debacle. Melanie Mason explains why he’s now urging fellow Republicans to reconsider contesting the ballots cast seven months ago. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

A program to help inmates and end the labor shortage. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of available workers many shops and restaurants face as the state reopens. A San Francisco staffing agency has an interesting solution to the shortage: hire inmates released early due to good behavior credits. ABC 7

Hundreds attended a funeral for a 6-year-old killed in a road rage shooting. Aiden Leos was mourned at a memorial service Saturday at Calvary Chapel Yorba Linda. “If Aiden would like for anything to be transformed as he left this world and made his way to heaven, he would want all of us to love one another and be kind,” his mother, Joanna Cloonan said at the service. Two people have been arrested over the fatal shooting. Los Angeles Times

Pallbearers and a casket
Family members walk behind pallbearers carrying the casket of 6-year-old Aiden Leos after a funeral service at Calvary Chapel Yorba Linda on Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

“He told me he didn’t think I was Black.” Davina Dickens, co-owner of Oakland’s Graffiti Pizza, says a Black father and son came to her restaurant’s door. The father asked to speak with the owner after noticing a “Black-owned” sign in the window. “I told him I was. In fact, I even pulled my mask down.” But he didn’t believe her. Dickens told columnist Justin Phillips she didn’t initially think much of the interaction. Unfortunately, things didn’t end there. San Francisco Chronicle

Fentanyl overdose deaths increase in Sonoma County. Data from the Sonoma County coroner’s office show that fentanyl-related overdose deaths have dramatically increased. A combination of the drug and other substances caused 80 deaths in the region last year, a 116% increase from 2019. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The Clippers won Game 7 and eliminated the Dallas Mavericks. The Clippers’ redemption tour continues to the second round after a 126-111 win. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 70. San Diego: isolated showers, 65. San Francisco: partly cloudy, 62. San Jose: sunny, 70. Fresno: hot north, cool south, 91. Sacramento: sunny, 82.

AND FINALLY

A birthday for someone who made a mark in Southern California:

Prince Rogers Nelson was born June 7, 1958. Not too long ago, our SEO editor Louisa Frahm explained how a local fan group preserves and celebrates the music legend’s legacy. One fan told us how Prince reacted when she showed the musician her Love Symbol tattoo on her lower back during a 2004 concert in Bakersfield.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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