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I like shelter-in place, or: The virtues of a small life


I led a very public life for a long time and, like most public figures, I was known by far more people than I personally knew, people who would watch me at public events and try to figure me out. I understood the rules of the game. When I was the F.W.C.—the famous wine critic—if I went to, say, a big tasting, I knew that people saw as I entered, watched which wines I tasted and whom I interacted with. I knew that some people were vaguely afraid of me, not because I’m physically intimidating—that’s hardly the case—and not because I’m unfriendly, because I’m not, but because they saw my rank and reputation—my power, let’s call it–and it tended to separate us.

Later, when I went to work at Jackson Family Wines, there was another kind of separation. I knew exactly why they had hired me: bragging rights. “We got Heimoff, the F.W.C.!!!” But internally, within the company, many mid-level executives were skeptical. I recall a very early meeting of a few hundred JFW employees at a retreat in Maui. Someone mentioned my name, and someone else in the crowded auditorium—I don’t know who—said, “Why did we hire him? He was more useful to us at Wine Enthusiast.” You can imagine how that made me feel. I never did “fit in” at JFW, just as I never fit into the public role I was expected to play at Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

You see, I am fundamentally a shy, reserved man. I don’t particularly like being in crowds and I don’t like being the center of attention. It makes me uncomfortable. As I got on with my career and realized that I was going to have to be a lot more public than I wanted, I grew to notice and admire others who were glad-handers, who could glide easily into a crowd and laugh and shmooze and seem so relaxed and funny. How do they do it, I wondered? I, myself, when in crowds always felt self-conscious, to the point of paralysis. If it was a big tasting event, I’d search the tables for winemakers whom I knew and with whom I was comfortable. I always enjoyed meeting my peers, the other wine critics, because we obviously had a shared experience that helped us understand each other. But still, it reached the point where, at these large events, I’d spend more and more time in my hotel room, watching T.V. or walking Gus, if I’d been able to bring him with me. I felt guilty about this—after all, I was on the company dime, and I realized I should be out there as an ambassador for my employer. But I’d tell myself, there had to be a line. Everybody is entitled to some privacy, to get away from it all into solitude and being by oneself.

That’s why I say I rather like the shelter-in-place. I haven’t done very much for the last six months. My days and nights have settled into a routine that looks very dull, on the surface. I awake, play with Gus for a while, arise, make breakfast, walk Gus, come back, and sit down at the computer to check emails and write this daily blog. I’ll turn the T.V. on, veering between local news and MSNBC and, if the weather is crazy as it has been this summer, The Weather Channel (which, sadly, does a horrible job of covering the West Coast). I’ll take a nap at 10 a.m. or so, then take Gus out for another walk, then return for a little reading and, probably, another nap. At one or two it’s time for my daily two-hour walk, then another nap until, finally, 5 p.m. rolls around—Happy Hour! Usually that means Lagunitas IPA and the evening news. And so the night wears on, me flipping the remote, looking for something decent on one of the many pay-T.V. channels: Prime, HBO, Netflix. Come 9 p.m., it’s off to more reading (currently, David McCullough’s superb biography of John Adams), and then to sleep. Wake up the next morning, and repeat.

There are, in fact, days when I speak with no one, except possibly a neighbor I run into. And I like it! If I’m tempted to worry that my life has sunk into a morass of lassitude and stupor, I remind myself how desperately, during the last years of my working life, whenever I was out on the road, working a room, being—again—watched and evaluated by strangers, I longed to be home, with Gus, doing nothing, safe from awkward human interaction, protected from awful corporate politics and human eccentricity and meanness.

There’s another reason I enjoy what I’m calling “the small life.” That’s because I respect the fact that I have what they used to call a very small carbon footprint. I feel like I’m doing my duty, as a citizen of the world, to reduce my negative impact on the environment. I no longer drive a car—good for me! My world is pretty much circumscribed by the distance my old legs can carry me. BART, the subway, is hardly an option anymore, what with the pandemic, and besides, where is there to BART to? Everything’s closed. So my life has become, literally, “small” in the sense of its geographic extent. And I’m finding that, far from being bored, I’m discovering pleasure in small things: discovering wonderful old homes on my walks, finding dozens of urban stairwells in my hilly part of Oakland, window shopping along Piedmont Avenue, figuring out where to take my afternoon snack—the Thai BBQ place on Broadway, Ming’s Tasty Dumplings in Chinatown, a spicy tuna roll at the sushi joint on Grand Ave.? Decisions, decisions.

The best thing about the small life is that I get to travel inside my head with no restrictions. I love being in my head. It’s such an interesting place! Somebody once observed—I’m paraphrasing—that the interior life is the best of all because you can go anywhere instantly, and it’s infinite. When I walk, I work stuff out: it’s amazing how ideas come when I’m in no position to write them down, which makes my iPhone’s Voice Memo app so handy.

Sure, I miss some stuff: going to the gym, eating in restaurants, going to bars with friends. My family missed our Passover seder this year for the first time ever, and I don’t know if I’ll ever take another airplane flight for the rest of my life. Still, for all the restrictions, this “small life” of mine is very much to my liking. It seems a fitting finale to what has been an eventful life.

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