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Doggie thoughts

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People ask if I’m going to get another dog. The answer is—I don’t know.

It’s a matter of on-the-one-hand, and on-the other. I want another dog because I want a companion to share my home and life with, the way Gus shared it with me. He was more than my companion, he was my best friend, the closest thing to God I witnessed in any living being I knew, human or animal.

But there are things about having a dog that I don’t miss: the stains on the carpet, walking him in the cold rain, and being constrained in my travels. If I went to San Francisco to hang out with friends, I was limited in my time because I always needed to get back to my dog. It’s pleasant not having that hanging over me.

I’ve been looking at the websites of the local animal adoption agencies: the East Bay SPCA, Berkeley Human Society and a few others. There’s not much out there in the way of adoptable dogs, unless you’re a fan of middle-aged pit bulls, which I’m not. Apparently, during the pandemic an isolated, lonely public snatched up adoptable dogs at a historic pace, and naturally the cutest ones went first. So even if I was amenable to having another dog, I can’t find one.

When I’m out walking around Oakland, I notice every single dog I see. Big ones, little ones, puppies, seniors, black and brown and white ones, short-haired and curly-haired. I never used to notice the local dogs the way I do now. They all have one thing in common: the way they walk. Dogs are so self-contained, in Whitman’s words. So proud to strut down the sidewalk. Usually the dog is in the lead, pulling the owner along by the leash. (With Gus and me, it was the opposite.) I admire the erectness of a dog’s head and shoulders, the inheritance of a wolfen past of dominating the plains and forests. I love the way dogs walk—that sturdy, confident little trot, like the gait of a fine thoroughbred. And when I see a dog stop and gaze up at its owner’s face with that mix of love, devotion and awe, it’s too much. I’m jealous.

Still, I can’t convince myself to commit. My age is another limiting factor. How much time do I have left? It would be horrible to adopt a dog and then keel over three days later. Not that I would mind being eaten by my dog, but it would be very hard on the poor creature. What would become of it?

I Google “sayings about dogs” and each one strikes a chord. “Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.” “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” “The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven not man’s.” “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” “Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day.” And one of my favorites: “You can usually tell that a man is good if he has a dog who loves him.”

There’s a lot that’s wicked and disreputable about the human condition, but one wonderful thing our ancestors did was to domesticate dogs (which may have been due as much to the cunning of wolves as to any humanitarian impulse in men). When that first wolf cum dog crawled into bed with that first human parent, perhaps 30,000 years ago, and both found the experience agreeable, human life changed forever…in the best possible way.


Remembering Gus, after 6 months

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IT’S BEEN exactly six months since Gus died on that sunny Tuesday morning, Dec. 1, 2020, when I lost my constant companion of the preceding ten years.

He was an exceptionally cute little dog, with a sweet disposition, the sort that strangers on the street would stop to pat. This is Gus when he was very young.

We were at the UPS Store, picking up my wine, and Gus would watch everything from the countertop.

When I got my job at Jackson Family Wines, in 2012, I took it only on the condition that I could bring Gus with me on my work travels. We crisscrossed California wine country. Here he is at the Red House, in Bien Nacido Vineyard,

and here he is at the opposite side of the state, in the Siskiyous, experiencing snow for the first and last time.

Of course, Gus had the usual doggie disabilities. He hated the Cone of Shame.

But he never complained. Here was his one and only time on a skateboard.

I first noticed the bleeding in November of last year. I thought his paw was injured, but the vet examined him and said, No, it’s not his paw. She took him into another room while I waited and then she came back and said he had a very aggressive form of cancer in his jaw. She gave him several weeks to a few months, and some pain killers. He was in good shape for about three weeks, sniffing and peeing and eating and sleeping and sitting in my lap. But then I noticed his increasing lethargy and while his appetite was undiminished he seemed to be losing his zest for life. I had wondered how I would know when it was time to have him put down, but as long as he was happy and pain-free there was no point in doing it. But then a day came and I knew. I had a prearrangement with the euthanizer. It was at the height of the pandemic and the vet wouldn’t come inside my house so we did it outside. Here’s the last picture ever of us.

It was taken by my friend, Gina, who stayed with me during the procedure. I don’t know that I could have endured it without her.

The vet injected him and as the drugs passed into his blood Gus lost consciousness in my arms, and there he died. The vet took him away and Gina and I walked around the neighborhood. I did most of the talking. A few weeks later Gus’s remains came back to me in the mail.

Winter set in, dry and cold. The New Year came. The pandemic made everything horrible. With nothing to do, nowhere to go, I was stuck at home, memories of Gus everywhere.

And now, June 1, 2021. Winter is over; the pandemic seems to be, too. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Gus. The first month after his death was unbearable, the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I was inconsolable. Now, the tears don’t come so often, and while the pain remains, what’s even stronger is this feeling of gratefulness, for having had this remarkable, loving, sacred creature in my life.


An Ode to Lox

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Growing up Jewish in The Bronx in the 1950s meant certain foods that were to become iconic to me, and none more so than lox.

The word is from the Yiddish word for “salmon” and refers to brined, or salted, salmon, thinly sliced. There are many different kinds of the food we call “lox.” Belly lox is simply salmon that has been brined—cured in salt. But New York Jews grew up, not on belly lox, but on Nova.

When my father went food shopping early on Saturday morning to get ready for the weekend, he would buy smoked whitefish, giant black-and-white cookies, cream cheese, a dozen or so bagels—and a pound of Nova. Nova is brined salmon that has also been lightly smoked, or “cold-smoked,” which is at a temperature below 85 degrees. The classic smoking wood is alder, but apple, oak and maple will do. The traditional New York salmon fish hails from Nova Scotia, which is why it’s called Nova.

Lox is the quintessential comfort food to me. When I was working, people used to ask me what my favorite food and wine were, and I’d tell them that if I were stranded on a tropical island and could eat only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be salmon (raw, straight from the sea, i.e. sushi) and Champagne, preferably a toasty, yeasty Blanc de Blancs. But if I could brine and smoke that salmon and turn it into lox, it would be even better. (Since salmon is a cold water fish, it would be impossible to find any near a tropical island.)

I eat smoked salmon every day. It’s not Nova, of course, because it’s hard to get salmon from Nova Scotia on the West Coast. Most of our locally-sourced salmon (which is of the Chinook variety) comes from the cold Pacific, or the even colder waters of California rivers such as the Klamath. I buy most of my smoked salmon at Whole Foods, which claims that it gets its fish from sustainable farms in Norway and Scotland. Smoked salmon is always pricey; I’ve seen it at Williams Sonoma for $50 a pound. At Whole Foods it’s usually $30 a pound, although occasionally it’s on sale for $22.

When I say I eat smoked salmon every day, that doesn’t mean I gorge on it. I like to have one ounce on one side of a buttered, toasted English muffin for breakfast. (On the other side I put melted cheese and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.) The traditional Jewish preparation for lox is on a bagel with cream cheese, and while I certainly wouldn’t argue if you offered me that, I prefer English muffins to bagels and butter to cream cheese.

I would never eat lox in any form except the pure, cold stuff you buy in the store. I wouldn’t put it into scrambled eggs. Some people put horse radish in their lox–eeewww–and I’ve also seen, and rejected, sushi rolls with smoked salmon, avocado and wasabi. I don’t like the way a lot of hotels and restaurants serve “bagels and lox” with sliced onions, capers, tomatoes and so on. What’s the point of that? Lox is so wonderful that goofing it up with a bunch of other stuff is culinary sacrilege.

The smell, taste and texture of lox bring me back to my childhood, which is always a pleasant experience for old people. But it’s more than that. I don’t crave smoked white fish (too bony) or bagels or the rotisserie-grilled chicken wings with paprika, salt and pepper mom used to make. But I do crave lox. I won’t try to put the texture and flavors into words, except to say that it’s silky, creamy, salty-sweet, oily and salmon-y.

Oh, and one more thing. The late, great Jewish comedian, Alan King, used to say, “Smoked salmon is for dinner. Belly lox is for breakfast. Don’t get that mixed up.” I never do.


Becoming a wine writer

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It was 32 years ago, in 1989, that I decided to be a freelance writer specializing in wine.

I’d just parted company with my employer, California College of Arts & Crafts, where I ran the Career Planning and Placement Center. It was not a pleasant experience. Talk about campus balkanization! I mean the way all the Deans and professors guarded their particular realms with tribal pugnacity, treating outsiders as marauding Visigoths. It was awful trying to get anything done for the students. Every time I tried to introduce a new program that would help the students get internships and be better prepared to enter the job market, the NIMBY Deans crawled out and screamed, “Not in my department!”

So I quit. Problem was, I had a mortgage to pay, and very little money. I needed a new job, fast, but if I’d learned anything from working in career counseling, it was this: Find a job you love. You’re going to be doing it for decades, so why labor someplace that makes you miserable?

I asked myself, What do I love? Two things came to mind: writing and wine. I think I came out of my mother’s womb impatient to set pen to paper and write. When I was four years old, I’d sit at my mother’s vanity and watch myself scribbling curlicues on a piece of paper in the mirror, pretending I was writing in script. Writing has proven to be my comfort and balm throughout a long life. Whenever I was up or down, writing evened me out.

Wine entered into my life in the winter of 1978-1979 (I’ve told the story many times about how the “wine bug” bit me in that supermarket aisle in the San Francisco suburb of Benicia.) I became seriously deranged about wine at that time. It didn’t make any sense; I didn’t come from a wine-drinking family, nor were any of my friends winos. Nonetheless, it happened.

So I put “wine” and “writing” together and came up with “wine writer.” I would write about wine for a living! There was never any doubt in my mind that I would make it work. I knew I’d be really good at it. I knew I’d love it. The fortunate thing at that time was that there would be no competition. In 1987, nobody wanted to be a wine writer. It was the Reagan years; everyone wanted to be an M.B.A. So the path to wine writing was clear.

It wasn’t hard to get hired at Wine Spectator. Nowadays, of course, it would be all but impossible for an unknown person to get hired there, or at any other reputable wine magazine. But I did. And that was how it all began.

When I muse back over these 32 years, I’m proud of what I achieved. Nobody gave me a lift up, nobody mentored me, no one greased the skids. I did it on my own, by hard work and a little God-given talent. Those are the essence of the American Dream. It sounds corny, but I believe it.

I know there are people who will say that opportunities for success in America aren’t what they used to be. I’m not sure I believe that. Yes, things are tough now, and the job market is undergoing incredible stresses. But it’s evolving into something new. A young, hard-working person, of any race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, can achieve wonders, if she’s willing to keep her eyes on the prize. I wouldn’t mind being 24 again and starting afresh. Of course, all this begs the question of “Whither wine writing”? Does it have a future? Does anyone care anymore what somebody blogs about wine? One thing’s for sure: the Golden Age of Wine Writing is over, and I was privileged to be part of it!


My friend, Gavin Newsom

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I have known our Governor, Gavin Newsom, for 30 years, and am proud to call him my friend. For all that time, I have respected, admired and liked him—never more so than when, in the winter of 2004, as Mayor of San Francisco, he startled the world by marrying gay people in City Hall, one of the bravest acts of political courage in American history.

We met in 1991, when I was a neophyte wine writer at Wine Spectator and Gavin was a tall, thin, earnest young 24-year old with a dream. He’d been as in love with wine as I was, and already was quite knowledgeable about it, so his choice of a career was hardly a surprise: He was working to open his first wine shop, PlumpJack, in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow District, and he asked me to be part of a weekly tasting panel. The idea was for a small group of us (which included his late father, William, then on the California Court of Appeal) to gather every Friday afternoon (I think it was) and taste through the wines distributors had dropped off during the week for sampling. These salesmen very naturally hoped PlumpJack would carry their wares, but Gavin was insistent on one thing. “I want to be able to tell the public,” he said, “that my friends and I have personally tasted every bottle on our shelves, and can recommend each one.” No wine would be sold at PlumpJack that did not meet our very rigorous standards!

This went on for months. Finally, the Big Day came: PlumpJack opened. It was a hit from the start, and a very intense time for young Gavin, who had few employees and was buried in work. From time to time, I’d drop by. His tiny office was up a narrow flight of steps that led to a sort of attic room. It was cramped and stuffy. There I’d find Gavin, at his desk, inundated by paperwork. But he always found time to chat.

Then came a day in 1996 when I read that the city’s Mayor, Willie Brown, had appointed Gavin to San Francisco’s Parking and Traffic Commission. I don’t think I, or anyone who knew Gavin, was surprised that he was entering public service (or politics, to call it by a rougher name). Gavin’s friends understood he had bigger things in mind than wine. From there, Gavin’s trajectory was meteoric: on to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors (where he was the youngest member), and then the Mayoralty itself (2004-2011). After a brief setback during which he failed in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for Governor in the 2010 election, Gavin went on to become Lieutenant-Governor (under Jerry Brown) until his spectacular victory in 2018, when he was elected Governor of California, capturing 62% of the vote over his hapless Republican opponent.

I call him “Gavin” in this post, but ever since he became Mayor, I’ve referred to him, out of respect, by his title, whether it’s in person or through emails. I’ve watched every aspect of Gov. Newsom’s political career: he is what I would call a “moderate-liberal,” business-friendly and socially progressive, not some wild-eyed leftist as his mendacious Republican enemies would have you believe. Gay marriage was radical, I suppose, but Gov. Newsom—who inherited his Irish-American father’s starry-eyed idealism—realized that if gays weren’t permitted to marry,  the American democracy was not working. For this, Mayor Newsom came under savage fire from conservative Christian rightwingers (Jerry Falwell likened same-sex marriage to “a legalization of bestiality”), but in my eyes that merely elevated the Mayor even higher.

Newsom has been a good Governor. Of course, not long after he was sworn in, the COVID pandemic hit. As Governor he was already dealing with huge issues: California’s increasingly worse wildfires and the homelessness crisis. To throw COVID on top of all that seemed beyond anyone’s ability. But Gov. Newsom has governed adroitly, and his famous “wonkiness” has served the state well. Yes, there were ups and downs: the COVID closure rules seemed to change often, and everybody seemed to find something to complain about. But there was a reason scientists called it “the novel coronavirus.” It was new. Nothing like it had ever existed before, except, possibly, in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic (which hit the Bay Area very hard). I looked around at the other States and beyond, to the countries of the world, and saw that every leader everywhere was struggling with what to do and how to get it done. Gov. Newsom managed the crisis successfully; California now has the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the U.S.

Of course, it isn’t surprising that Gov. Newsom’s enemies—and almost every one of them is a rightwing trumper—are now seeking to recall him. Republicans have been unable to win statewide office in California for a long time, which frustrates the hell out of them. They fear Gov. Newsom as the attractive and capable politician that he is: a grave future risk to them and their party. So they’re doing what they do best: trying to take him down with lies and smears.

It won’t work. I have predicted (and I have shared this with him) that he will win the recall by double digits. When he emerges victorious from this pathetic Republican recall at the end of this year, he will be stronger than ever, with a glittering political career before him and the eyes of the nation upon him.


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