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The healing has begun. Life without Gus…


It’s been three weeks now since Gus passed. I’ve been watching myself closely to witness my evolving reaction to the death of my best friend. I’ve had people die on me before—my father, my mother, my grandparents, my beloved cat, close friends, and people in public life whom I never knew but felt I did (e.g., JFK, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg). But Gus was special to me in life, and he has been special to me in death.

My initial reaction to his death was sheer, spectacular grief. For days after he died in my arms, I could barely handle anything. I completely gave up on the notion of being the strong male who suffers in silence, and yielded to my shattered emotions. Gus had been my constant companion for so long, it was as if my heart had been ripped from my chest. When I took the job at Jackson Family Wines, in 2012, one of my negotiated demands (in addition to working from home) was that Gus be allowed to accompany me to meetings, and to travel with me on business-related trips. After I retired in 2016, we were together 24-7-365. To be so suddenly wrenched from Gus was the most awful thing I’d ever been through.

I knew, intellectually, that time would heal that particular wound. I didn’t know quite how the process would work, but the support I got from hundreds of people (some of whom, on social media, I didn’t even know) was tremendously helpful. Everybody told me I’d get over the immediate pain. Today, I can report that I have. It’s no longer like a match being held to my skin. It’s more of a dull ache. I haven’t cried, physically, for days now. But tears are only a heartbeat away. I am reminded of Gus dozens of times a day. His little bed, which I still have on the livingroom floor…his cremains in the urn…the empty chair he liked to sit on…the space next to me in bed where I was so used to finding him, in the middle of the night, now vacant. His absence is what shocks me the most. It’s like the Sun disappearing from the sky.

I’m an anomaly, I guess, in having reached the age of 74 and never experiencing this severe a loss until now. My thoughts turn to countless humans who have lost children, spouses, parents, friends. I see in my mind the suffering people in war zones, beating their breasts, ululating, in the worst cases carrying in their arms their dead children. I think of the FDNY firefighters on Sept. 11 who rushed into the towers. I think of Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in Jewish synagogues. I see images repeated across untold generations of humankind. Death surrounds us.

What differentiates us humans from the beasts, it’s said, is the knowledge of death. Gus didn’t know he was dying, not even at the end…or so I think. Maybe, in some mammalian way we don’t understand, Gus had a glimpse. There was a last moment, just before the drug kicked in, when our eyes locked: his looked into mine, mine into his, and I wondered…Does he know that this is it? But then, he fell asleep, the sedative knocking him into unconsciousness, and his eyes, still open, were lifeless.

Ah well. How beautiful and wondrous and strange and sad it all is. Meanwhile my plans to remodel my place are proceeding. It’s a fulltime job! Grout, paint, wallpaper, carpets, appliances, countertops, molding. It keeps me busy; sometimes my mind races. People say it’s good for me to be “distracted” from thinking about Gus. That’s the word they use: “distracted.” I suppose it is good, but I’m not “distracted” in the sense that I don’t think about Gus. I do, all the time. Memories of him rush through my brain, even as I look at paint samples or research refrigerators. But I try not to talk to him anymore. That would be weird. I have to check myself whenever I get the urge. It’s a hard habit to break, after so many years. “Gus, I’m home!” or “I’ll be back soon, don’t worry!” Not gonna turn into one of those crazies who talk to the dead. But what we had was extraordinary. As Gus wrote me, in that last letter, “It was good, Daddy, wasn’t it? It was really, really good.”

Yes, Gus. It sure was.

Gus in the urn. Remembering him.


I wrote the other day of the division in my mind between the spiritual and materialistic interpretations of life, a split that Gus’s death both revealed and exacerbated. It is perhaps no coincidence that yesterday, the day I received Gus’s cremains in the mail, I also read these words from the autobiography of the Indian spiritual teacher, Pararmahansa Yogananda, concerning a vision a teacher of his related to him.

The teacher’s guru had just died. The teacher was beside himself with grief. Suddenly the person of his departed guru appeared before him. “The master approached me comfortingly,” the teacher related. “‘Here, touch my flesh,’ he said. ‘I am living, as always. Do not lament; am I not with you forever?’” Yogananda, a Hindu who admired all religions, was deeply touched by these words. Turning to the Christian Bible for inspiration, he quoted I Corinthians: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory?”

I, being of mortal coil and weak, do not yet understand Gus’s death in such cosmic terms. Gus has not appeared before me (although he is often in my mind). When I removed the wooden urn housing Gus’s remains from the cardboard box in which it was shipped, I almost collapsed. It was more than I could bear: this faithful, constant companion of so many years, so pure and filled with spirit and devotion, reduced to dust sent via FedEx.

I confess: I do not know that Gus is “living, as always.” I lament. I don’t know that he is with me forever, except in a metaphorical way. His death carries the most terrible, awful sting. I wish to God I could accept, and be assured that Gus lives in Heaven and that someday I will cross that Rainbow Bridge and be reunited with him. But I can’t bring myself to believe in the supernatural.

When I recovered from the shock of holding his cremains in my hands, the question occurred to me of where to put the box. I had also kept his leash and collar, and of course there was the paw print in plaster that the vet who euthanized him had made. I thought of placing them on the headboard of my bed, but that seemed weird and ghoulish. As sorrowful as I am, I’ve realized all along that I can’t, and won’t, be The Widow Heimoff, grieving for the rest of my life. Then, I ran into a neighbor who told me that, when her beloved cat died, she actually slept with the urn containing his ashes. She kept it pressed to her heart. That worked for her, but as this point, I just don’t want to do that. I can change my mind, but “letting go” of Gus also means letting go of the urn, not sleeping with it. What “letting go” does not mean is forgetting. I’ll never forget Gus; I don’t want to forget Gus. I want to remember my sweet dog until my last dying breath. It honors Gus to remember him, and Gus, in death, deserves no less.

My neighbor, the one with the cat, also told me she can’t look at pictures of her late cat. I’m the exact opposite. I love looking at the many photos I took of Gus over the years. I loved looking at Gus in life: whether he was sleeping, or looking back at me, or just wandering down the sidewalk doing his thing, his presence filled me with peace. I thought often of Whitman’s words:

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.”

Here are a few pictures to share with you.

Gus spent a lot of time in his bed.

Or on mine.


This was the one and only time Gus ever experienced snow. He seemed a bit confused.

I used to bring Gus to cousin Ellen’s house, in the Malibu hills. He liked to sniff all the wild critter scents.

Gus loved to find a nice field to lay down in on a warm, sunny day, and get a little shut-eye.

This is one of my favorite pictures. It was taken in the UPS Store, where I pick up wine. Gus was a regular feature there. The staff adored him.

Well, that’s it for now. To my friends in the northeast, I hope you can dig yourselves out from Winter Storm Gail! And to everyone: please wear your mask.

Politics, or the inner life?


Possibly because I’m a Gemini (not that I’m a big believer in astrology), I’ve always had a strongly dualistic mind. Half of me inclines toward metaphysical, mystical explanations of the world, but then the other half is strictly rational, which makes me a firm believer in science as well as in politics.

This schism is reflected in my daily interests. As readers of this blog know, my political instincts are strong and unwavering. I believe that politics is the best way for humankind to learn to live with each other and work out our differences, while avoiding bloodshed, especially in a multi-everything country like ours. I admire the rationality of politics: the objectivity of voting, of facts, of winning and losing, and of the laws which politics seeks to preserve and perfect. My aversion to Trumpism is based on my profound belief that it represents everything amoral, hostile and dangerous to the kind of country I want to live in. Trumpism, which is the current expression of the Republican Party, is an enemy worth fighting.

At the same time, I’ve always had a renunciate side of me—a kind of Hindu hermitism that seeks realization, not in the grimy, grinding politics of this world, but in the inner mind. This is why I took LSD in the 1960s and sought God; this is why I dropped out of society (in Timothy Leary’s phrase) to join a spiritual commune in the 1970s. This is why in the 1990s I devoted considerable time to the study of Kabbala with a Chasidic Jewish teacher. And this is why the most recent books I’ve read have been Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

Although the background and setting of the two books couldn’t be more different, both tread the same metaphysical ground. Castaneda’s book deals with the Yaqui Indian culture of Mexico in the 1960s, while Yogananda’s details his upbringing in India in the early 20th century. And yet both men were nearly identical in this respect: they sought God (by whatever name), and they realized that non-participation in (or non-pollution by) the greater materialist society was essential to further their search. Castaneda headed for the Central Mexican mountain wilderness to find his guides, while Yogananda went to the Himalayas in search of his guru.

It’s weird having these two opposed points of view vying with one another in my head! Politics plunges me into the world of strife, turmoil and struggle. Mysticism removes me from that world (or tries to), letting me explore the wide open expanses of heart and mind. But are these two concepts really inimical, or do they somehow complement one another?

Politics is indeed difficult. When you win (Obama in 2008 and 2012, the midterm elections in 2018, Biden in 2020), you’re ecstatic. When you lose (the midterm elections in 2010, Trump in 2016, Merrick Garland in 2017), you’re plunged into anger and despair. Well do I know of the philosophical tradition that says winning and losing are all the same: both manifestations of Maya, of illusion—worldly grasping which the true seeker must renounce upon recognizing their illusory nature.

Well and good, but there’s an element of the ostrich sticking its head into the sand about renunciation. The poor ostrich may believe that because it cannot see the tiger rushing towards it, the tiger is not really there. But the tiger really is there, toothed and clawed. I know many people here in Oakland—a city of a fantastic diversity of religious and spiritual approaches—who loathe politics, who are serious about meditating and following their divinities (whomever they happen to be), and who think that by taking political sides (Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, whatever), one merely aids and abets the confusion and rancor of this world. They’re right, to a degree; but America has profound problems (poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, global warming, homophobia, religious extremism, and all the rest of the gloomy Almanack de Gotha), and crawling off to some cave somewhere and sitting in full lotus hardly can be the cure for these problems. Or so it seems to me.

Politics is war, to be sure, a nasty business, and politicians aren’t necessarily the kind, loving persons they want us to think they are. But we’re going to be led by political leaders whether we like it or not, whether we vote or not: someone is going to be Mayor, or City Councilman, or Congressman or Senator or President, and that “someone” is going to have control over our lives and over the lives of our loved ones. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to make sure that the decision-makers are making the right decisions? My beloved friend Philip, who adorned my body with his tattoo art, absolutely scorns political involvement, including voting, as evil: he would rather go to Tibet, or Burning Man, or to a drumming ritual in the Redwoods. But as I always tell him, nearly every aspect of his life–indeed, his life itself–is determined by laws and rules made by politicians and bureaucrats: his tattoo license, the roads upon which he drives, the safety of his car, the cleanliness of the air he and his son breathe, the ability of his gay friends to marry, his freedom from having alien religions imposed upon him or of having his own (slightly Wiccan) religion discriminated against, the purity of the food he eats, the existence of a police force to protect his storefront during riots—all of these things are political in nature. Philip acknowledges these truths, but he nonetheless sticks to his loathing of politics. We agree to disagree.

For myself, I will never stop seeking the “inner truth,” but I do so not as an alternative to political involvement, but as a balance to it. The inner life, for me, is like a refreshing bath in a cool pool of crystalline water, after the heated bloodletting of political battle. The words of Carlos Castaneda (and his spiritual teacher, Don Juan) and the words of Yogananda reveal to me vistas of peace and spiritual potential that are as important as the air I breathe and the food I eat to live. I want, need and believe both in politics as a worthy struggle for man, and in mystical contemplation as the proper field of inquiry for the human mind.

A thousand little things


I awoke in the middle of the night last night. Was on my back and automatically reached with my right hand to the right side of the bed, to put my palm on Gus’s soft, sleeping little body. But there was no Gus there.

It’s a thousand little things like that. I still haven’t removed his bed from its place by the balcony. It’s dumb to keep it there, I know, like some kind of relic, but I just can’t bring myself to move it. Same with the bag of kibble. I should really throw it away, and I guess I will sooner or later, but not right now. I could go on and on with the rituals that were so ingrained in my daily habits but are no longer needed. But I’ll spare you the details.

Marilyn called the other day to see how I was doing and I told her I know I need to stop whining and crying to everybody. People mean well, and they were wonderful that first week, giving me their love and sympathy and in many cases crying along with me. But “I don’t want to overstay my welcome,” I told Marilyn. People are going to start wanting me to shut up already and get on with things, and I don’t blame them. That doesn’t mean my own private grief needs to abate. But it does mean I have to stop talking about it all the time.

Still, this is my blog: the place I get things off my chest. So if I can’t write about Gus and his aftermath here, why have a blog?

I actually find I’m not weeping as much. I don’t think I cried at all yesterday, although I thought about Gus often, and every time I did I felt that great big hole in my heart. I doubt that emptiness will ever be filled; at least, I can’t see a way it could be. I could get another dog, and my friends who have gotten second (or third, or fourth) dogs have told me emphatically they never resented their new pets for not being as wonderful as their former ones, even though they worried that they would. Paul, whom I’ve known since before kindergarten, told me he’s had six dogs over the decades, and every one was as precious to him as its predecessors. That’s encouraging; I may well get another dog in the new year. But not right now.

Besides, I had Mr. P., my cat, for nearly twenty years, and I loved him madly, and also grieved when we had to put him down. But as Gus showed me, I had more than enough love to share with my cat and my dog. Each was wonderful in his own way. Of course, cats being cats, there was a lot more interaction between me and Gus than with Mr. P. Gus and I were like an old married couple, completely attuned to each other’s ways. Mr. P. liked and trusted me, of that I’m sure, but Gus…Ah, Gus was devoted to me, wanted only to be with me, felt safe and protected with me, and didn’t feel complete unless we were together. And vice versa, I might add.

He was my best friend, my partner, my mate. My life as a wine writer kept me somewhat isolated from others. Writing is a solitary profession; writers live largely in their heads. I was a very social boy and adolescent, but I grew somewhat cantankerous in adulthood and largely avoided the kinds of ties other humans depend upon in this world. I did that by choice, fully aware of the disadvantages, but knowing, too, that as countless shamans, brujos and hermits have discovered, there are joys in living an interior life. At the same time, I’m only human, and occasionally was overwhelmed with loneliness, especially after I retired; and that’s where Gus was such a godsend. Neither of us had much in the way of social connections or things, but we had each other, and when we were together, we had the riches of King Croesus.

I need something to distract me, so I’m doing a remodel on my place. It’s going to be a total nuisance, as anyone who’s ever done anything similar knows: weeks of disruption and physical inconvenience. But I want to do it and so I will, and it will be good for me. Maybe when it’s over, sometime early next year, I’ll look for a new dog. The local shelters are “slim pickins,” as they say, because so many people are adopting dogs in the pandemic. Mostly what’s out there are pit bulls, and I’m sorry, all you pit bull lovers, but I’m not getting a pit bull! Somewhere, maybe, in the coming months, I’ll go to the website of the East Bay SPCA or the Berkeley Humane Society and see a photo of a dog so sweet, so wonderful that it just begs me to bring it home. That’s what happened when I saw Gus’s picture online, all those years ago. I don’t have that picture anymore but let me tell you, as soon as I saw it I fell in love. I think I want to fall in love again.

The top 8 influences on my early life


I am who I am because of who I was in my formative years, and who I was has been the result of strong influences on me. I suppose I was born with certain innate traits, but the following eight influences—seven humans, one technological—from the “outside world” formed me as certainly as did the genes I inherited from my parents.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all eight influences were from the world of media and entertainment. My generation was the first to grow up in front of the T.V. set. I don’t know if that was bad or good, but it’s the way it was; and so many of my influences came through the small screen. So I’m listing television itself as my first influencer.

  1. Television. We got our first T.V. when I was about four. I can remember to this day the small sofa I sat on watching Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Howdy Doody, Andy’s Gang (a truly bizarre show), Rootie Kazootie and I Love Lucy while mom made me a big glass of milk with Nestlé’s Quik. Television was my principal window on the world in the 1950s; the real world by comparison seemed boring. It surprises me how little thought my parents gave to this new obsession of mine, which to use a current adjective was enormously disruptive to the established order. Probably they were grateful that television kept me occupied and quiet.
  2. Elvis Presley. I was just ten years old when The King made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and so clear is the memory that it seems like it was only yesterday. The buildup of hype was tremendous; it was the biggest event in television’s young history, and I was transfixed. Of course, they didn’t show Elvis below the waist, but despite that, his tremendous sexual physicality oozed from the tiny 12-inch black-and-white screen. What mesmerized me about Elvis was, of course, that primitive sexuality: the sneer, the menace. It didn’t hurt that he was gorgeous. Elvis established the template of handsome crooners as rock gods that was to dominate popular music ever since.
  3. Leonard Bernstein. The Maestro was a hero in New York City of the 1950s, especially among Jews. Lennie had already become the most famous American conductor in history, and he was one of ours. I used to go to his concerts in Lewisohn Stadium, and his Young People’s Concerts on T.V. were my introduction to classical music. Although I didn’t then know that Lennie was gay, he had a sort of feral omnisexuality that provoked me into a deeper understanding of my own budding sexuality.
  4. John F. Kennedy. Speaking of omnisexuality! Kennedy was something no politician had been before: young, handsome, smart, funny, liberal and thoroughly modern. After the dullness of Eisenhower, he was perfect. His charisma leaped from the T.V. screen. What F.D.R. had been to my mother, J.F.K. was to me: the pre-eminent politician, the model for all (Democrats) who were to come. He still has never been beat in that department.
  5. Andy Warhol. I knew quite a lot about him even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, first because he, like Lennie, was a New Yorker, and secondly because I attended the High School of Music & Art as an art major, and so was exposed to Warhol and his contemporaries in the New York Pop Art movement. Andy fascinated me from the start, with his weirdness, his crazy hair, his sheer talent. Later, when his homosexuality was an open secret, he became another role model. To me, Andy Warhol’s esthetic defined the post-war years in America.
  6. Bob Dylan. Another New York Jew. By 1962 he was famous among young people in the city for his folk songs, which inspired a generation of civil rights and anti-war activists. My friend Judy Francis turned me onto Dylan during his acoustic period, but it wasn’t until he went electric, which coincided with my drug-taking days, that I turned into a huge Dylan freak. Bob Dylan has been part of the soundtrack and drama of most of my life, and helped shape my weltanschauung and the very way I think.
  7. The Beatles. My friend George turned me on to “With the Beatles” in the Fall of 1963, at virtually the same time J.F.K. was assassinated. I shall never forget, could never forget, George’s amazing prescience when he told me, “This band is going to change the world.” How right he was. Going through the Sixties with the Beatles by my side was the privilege of a lifetime.
  8. Timothy Leary. Okay, I wasn’t exactly young anymore when the guru of L.S.D. came into my life. But his “turn on, tune in and drop out” credo was exactly what I was looking for in the mid-1960s, and it was he who, metaphorically, sent me to the East Village in the summer of 1965 looking to score some acid. Dylan had first alerted me that the reality inside my head was as real, maybe realer, than the publicly agreed-on reality outside, but it was acid, and Dr. Leary, who opened up that reality to me and guided me through it. Lots of people put Leary down these days, but to me he was one of the creators of the age.

It’s weird that there are no actual humans who were physically present in my life on this list. There were certainly individuals I knew, including my parents, grandparents and certain teachers, who had long-lasting impact on me, but nowhere near the level of these celebrities. I guess that says something about our culture. Or about me. Or both.

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