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All Things Must Pass

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We got word last night from Gus’s vet: the biopsy result is in, and it’s what we feared. An aggressive, malignant tumor in the skull.

His vet suggested I cancel Thursday’s appointment with the oncologist and surgeon. It won’t do any good, she explained. I just did that, prior to writing this.

His life expectancy? Weeks. He’s in good shape now, as I’ve written. No middle-of-the-night pain attack last night, thank goodness. He slept soundly by my side. Occasionally we awoke together and he licked my hand. The vet warned, however, that his downhill trajectory is going to be rapid. It might involve difficulty breathing, or chewing and digesting his food, depending on where the tumor’s tentacles spread. The pain will increase; later today, I’ll pick up some new, more powerful pain meds as well as a steroidal medication. The steroids, the vet said, will have adverse longterm effects on his organs, but there is no long term for Gus.

And so this is it.

I won’t blog anymore on this topic, until we reach the end. There’s no point in chronicling the day-to-day details of his decline. I’d like to thank, with a sincerity of heart difficult to put into words, how grateful I am to the many people who have expressed sentiments of sympathy to me. So many of you have lost your own pets. Many of you knew Gus and knew how much he meant to me. We made the rounds of wine country together for a decade—Gus was certainly a well-traveled dog!—and I used to joke that he was possibly the most famous wine-critic dog in California. Gus has trod many a vineyard and roamed over many hills and dales from Santa Barbara to the Willammette Valley. He was a lucky dog in that respect.

I have so many memories of these travels. I used to stay regularly in the guesthouse at Bien Nacido Vineyard, which as anyone knows who’s been there is a beautiful piece of land, surrounded by the limestone outcroppings of the San Rafael Mountains. The vineyard is intermingled with a working ranch, and Gus got to see and smell all the animals that grazed so peacefully in the fields, as well as the wilder ones who came out at night. Off-leash, he ran and frolicked in a way he can’t in the city, and I didn’t have to worry about cars.

There are many more memories. But I don’t want to look back just yet. Plenty of time for that in the weeks to come. I want now just to savor our moments together, which are still so sweet and pleasant.

Now the darkness only stays at night time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good
At arriving at the right time
But it’s not always going
To be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away


The Gus Diaries: The End Game?

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The nights are worse than the days. Last night, he was obviously in pain, although he didn’t yelp or yowl, except once: a short, sharp cry, which awoke me just as Gus was jumping off the bed and headed for the bathroom. I got up, stroked him, comforted him, picked him up and brought him back to bed, because I know that he prefers being with me when he’s distressed. Once back in bed, his pain must have continued, because instead of dropping quickly off to sleep as he usually does, he constantly shifted position. He seemed to want to be as close to me as physically possible; it felt like he would have burrowed into my body if he were able. He finally took up a position—for the first time ever—atop my head. His little body was draped over my skull (I was on my side), his front paws in my face, his rear paws cupping the base of my neck. It wasn’t the most comfortable position for me. I have various forms of arthritis, and I, too, have to frequently shift around to relieve my own pain. But Gus finally seemed comfortable, and there was no way I was going to force him to move. So fifteen minutes, maybe, were spent in this way. With his head, chest and belly literally touching my head, I could hear his internal grunts and sighs. My poor little darling, I would do anything for you, just tell me what to do.

In the morning I called the vet where he has the oncology and surgery appointments this Thursday. It had occurred to me that I don’t fully understand why our regular vet had me make the specialist appointments before we actually have a diagnosis. (I should have asked her at the time, but I was too shocked and confused to think clearly.) The oncology receptionist agreed. “Normally,” she said, “we’d need the results of a test.” Will we get the biopsy results back before Thursday? I don’t know. The receptionist suggested keeping the two appointments. I can always cancel if the results aren’t back yet, and there’s no cancellation fee.

I also Googled “bone cancer in dogs” and found many results for “osteosarcoma,” which is the term his vet used when she said she suspected he has bone cancer. Such tumors are “highly aggressive,” another term she used. Osteosarcoma apparently most often strikes a dog’s limbs, but cases in the skull are not unknown. Then I Googled “bone cancer in dogs, skull,” and there were many hits. From my reading of them, it’s not good news. The cause is unknown. The cancer can metastasize to other parts of the body. It’s extremely painful. You can always amputate a dog’s cancerous limb and the dog will do quite well afterwards, but you can’t amputate a dog’s skull or snout. The most common treatment is radiation (chemotherapy is not recommended). If the dog responds well to radiation, it might live for as long as a year.

My greatest fear, in fact, is of Gus having a severe pain attack in the middle of the night. If you’ve been through something like this, you know the feeling of helplessness and panic. Your dog is suffering; it’s 2 a.m. and there’s no one to call except for the vet’s emergency number. I think our regular vet was thinking of all this when she advised against “any further treatment” if in fact Gus’s diagnosis is osteosarcoma in the skull or nasal passage. Because it’s “highly aggressive,” even though Gus might be relatively okay today doesn’t mean that in twelve hours things will not go rapidly downhill. This raises the possibility of putting him down this week, as soon as the diagnosis comes in (assuming it’s osteosarcoma). Putting down an animal that still has a pretty good life quality is a lot harder than putting down an animal that is obviously in the painful end stage of disease. I had Mr. P. put down when he had zero quality of life, was shitting himself, not eating and could barely stand. That was a no-brainer. Gus still wags his tail, loves going out for walks, inhales food, has very proper, even dainty sanitary habits, enjoys belly rubs and is curious about his environment. To put down a dog under those circumstances goes against every fiber in my body.

I’ll call his regular vet later this morning when they open. I know it won’t be easy getting through to the office; I’m just as likely to encounter a busy signal, or be put on hold for a long time, as for someone to actually answer. I want to ask the vet when she expects the biopsy result, and what should we do if it comes in, as feared, with osteosarcoma as the diagnosis. I want to ask her, too—and this is hugely important—what I’m supposed to do if he’s in pain at night and I can’t get through to the office, or, even if I can get through, they tell me they’ll all booked up for a week. That is the nightmare scenario. Is it legal to put your dog down by yourself if things get bad enough? How? Could I actually do it?

This is all happening fast—three weeks ago, there was no problem—but in a way, it’s unfolding slowly enough for me to begin to get used to the idea of Gus dying. Well, not that I’d “get used to it,” but at least, I’m mentally prepared for that possibility. I’m playing all these scenarios out in my head, which means my brain is starting to adjust to the reality of his demise. It won’t come as a complete surprise, which means it won’t be a complete shock. The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away.


When a dog is sick…

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I’m not a believer in God. I sometimes think it would make my life easier if I were. You know, to have something to believe in, to comfort me during hard times, to sustain me in my alone-ness. But as worthy as those things might be, still, they don’t justify clinging to an idea that Reason tells me is absurd.

Maybe I put too much “faith,” as it were, in Reason. Yes, Reason gets us a long way. The human race has gotten to where it is because we have the ability to reason, and to learn from reasoning. (Whether or not “where we are” as a race is a good thing, I’ll leave for others to decide.) Animals can’t reason—at least, not beyond a certain point. But we can, which is why we have music, art, civilization, medicine, engineering and all the other things that enrich our lives, and raise us above the animals.

I’m thinking these thoughts today because Gus, my little dog, is desperately ill. Although the diagnosis isn’t officially in yet, he probably has cancer. A fast-growing tumor developed last week on the side of his snout. He’s in pain; to hear him yelp in the middle of the night simply breaks my heart. The vet is not hopeful. She’ll send him to a specialist, but warns there’s not much of a chance for recovery.

This is raising all sorts of questions. What will I do if—when—I lose the best friend I have in the world? When is it right to “put him down”? I had my cat, Mr. P., for many years, until he was twenty and the vet said the time had come. It was awful. She injected him and he died in my arms. He looked like he was sleeping. Both of us—the vet and me—cried.

One of the biggest questions or issues I’m facing now is that of God. If worse comes to worst, the next few days and weeks are going to be very difficult, for both Gus and me. I’d do almost anything to keep my puppy from pain, but there’s really nothing I can do. The vet will prescribe pain medication, which will help to some extent, but… As for me, if I had a faith I could lean on, I guess it would help. At least, that’s what people of faith say. But how can I remain true to my core beliefs if I take the all-too-convenient route of believing in God (even though I know he doesn’t exist), just in order to “feel better” about the death of my dog? I mean, God can’t just be some kind of analgesic. That’s what wine and marijuana are for. I can’t believe in the existence of some Force that every fiber of my mental being tells me does not and cannot exist.

How do I account, then, for All This? Or, as Leibniz wondered, Why is there something rather than nothing? I don’t know. But neither do I feel the compulsion to account for All This. I’m not driven to understand everything and I accept that fact. There are enough problems here on Earth to deal with. The other reason for my aversion to believing in God is because so many people who do are so obnoxious. I’m talking about those awful evangelicals and some of the arch-Catholics, like Coney Barrett and Franklin Graham. I really, really don’t like them and I don’t trust them and I don’t want them to have any power at all, because their exercise of power is cruel, malignant and discriminatory. If those kinds of people are illustrative of believing in God, then you can count me out.

So that leaves me pretty much alone. If I’m going to go through a mourning period for Gus—and to be honest, I’m already in it—I’m going to do it alone. I have friends and family, but there’s nothing any of them can do to get me through this. I already went through it with Mr. P., so I have some familiarity with what to expect. The stinging, wrenching tears (which have already started). The immeasurable grief, the unbearable separation from a loved one. Who will I talk to? “Hey, Little Baby, time for din-din.” Upturned head, eyes wide open, wagging tail. “Poopsy, you look a little tired,” as he’s on his back in his doggy bed, all four paws sticking straight up, softly snoring, his chest gently bobbing up and down. “That’s my Gus!” as he licks my hand in bed in the middle of the night. I stroke his head, nuzzle his snout, rub his belly (his favorite thing).

Well, if I can’t depend on God then I can depend on the resilience of us humans to recover from tragedy. I’ve never really gotten over the loss of Mr. P., but the knife-sharpness is long gone (he died in 2004), replaced by a dull sense-memory that is as much a feeling of joy at having known him for twenty years as it is of pain and loss. So it will be with Gus. But first, there are many long bridges to cross.


The Stately Mansions of Piedmont and the Wealth Gap

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The small city of Piedmont is one of the richest in the Bay Area. The median household income is $212,000 a year. More than half the adult population earns over $200,000 annually. Piedmont sold the first $1 million home in the East Bay years ago, although today, a million bucks won’t buy you much. Zillow reports that current home listings in the 1.7 square mile city range from $1.4 million to $6.2 million. Seven of the ten most expensive Alameda County home sales in 2016 were in Piedmont.

I can walk to Piedmont from my home, in the Adams Point section of Oakland, in ten minutes, and I frequently do, for my daily stroll. I enjoy wandering its quiet, hilly streets, with their big trees, huge homes with immaculate grounds and gardens that bloom all year. Piedmont is a world apart from Oakland, even though the city of 10,809 is entirely surrounded by Oakland. Piedmont was recognized by California as a city in 1907, because even then its residents wanted to dissociate themselves from the bigger, dirtier, poorer city around it. They still do.

It’s funny: Piedmont, as I said, is a ten-minute walk from my home, but if I walk ten minutes in any other direction, I come across squalid neighborhoods of run-down homes, brownfields of homeless encampments and trash-lined gutters. There is no trash in Piedmont. It’s as manicured as any rich suburb in the country. When I walk its avenues, I admire the stately mansions, which have been built in all styles, from Georgian and Spanish Colonial to Arts & Crafts to ultra-modern.

Piedmont is Pacific Heights in the suburbs, and with better weather. Porsches and Lamborghinis line the driveways and curbs; the hoi polloi drive BMWs and Mercedes. The population is, as Tom Wolfe wrote of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, radical chic: Lots of pictures of Breonna Taylor, “Say their names” signs, BLM posters, and of course Biden front yard placards, although I do wonder how many of the Piedmontese would be embarrassed to put out a Trump sign. I have to assume the BLM signs at least are sincere. When I walk through downtown Oakland and they’re in every store window, I get the suspicion some are for insurance, to keep thugs from smashing their windows during the next riot, which is never far off. But the Piedmontese needn’t worry about riots in their bucolic streets. The local polizia, with the mutual aid of the Alameda County Sheriffs Department, simply wouldn’t allow it.

I myself could never afford to live in Piedmont, and I suppose there’s some envy on my part, gazing at those stately mansions. It’s clean and refreshing to get out of the inner city when I stroll there, but I always know that I’m going to have to return to Adams Point, where a growing homeless camp is a block away. If there are any encampments in Piedmont, I’ve never seen them, and I rather doubt that there are. In my head, as I walk though Piedmont, I can’t help but think about the wealth gap in America. We read about how foreign cities like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Nairobi are infamous for having privileged neighborhoods jeek-by-jowl with some of the poorest slums on earth, but we seldom think of U.S. cities in that context. We should.

I’m not a reflexive “raise taxes” person. I believe Americans who work hard and achieve success should be able to hold onto their gains. We’re all created morally equal, but not physically or intellectually equal. I recognize that most rich people got what they have through their own efforts, and that the inverse of that is true: many poor people failed to work hard and take advantage of the American Dream, which is why they’re poor. I recognize that there are structural inequities in America, and we have to identify them and rectify them. We’re doing that as a nation, although I also recognize that some people think we’re not doing it fast enough. What is “fast enough” anyway?

So I don’t resent the good burghers of Piedmont. Still, this begs the question of what is the right, fair way to bridge the wealth gap. I’m no Communist; I don’t believe in seizing rich peoples’ wealth and redistributing it to everyone else. At the same time, I’m no royalist. Rich people have an obligation to share the wealth, especially when the wealth gap in America is so big. What is the just, ethical proportion of their wealth that should be shared?

The California State Legislature—which is to say, Democrats in our heavily Blue state—in July passed a measure that would raise taxes on the state’s richest people from the current 13.3% rate to 54% for the uber-rich, raising an estimated $6 billion a year that could go to schools and other services for the poor and struggling middle classes.

That’s not a huge amount of money in a state with a $202 billion dollar budget, and it’s hard to argue that the extra money isn’t needed. But already the anti-tax forces are fighting back. Their main argument is that “top earners could more easily leave the state and work in places with no income tax, like Nevada and Texas.” And I suppose there will be some rich people who emigrate if the tax proposal actually happens. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want corporations to leave California for Nevada and Texas, which is already happening. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that taxing the rich (and the richest corporations) is the right thing to do. The proof, for me, is in those leafy Piedmont streets. Does the owner of that three-story Palladian mansion really need a new Porsche Taycan 4S? Could he part with another $35,000 a year if he knew the money was going to inner-city preschools, or forest firefighting, or pediatric healthcare for poor kids? If he says he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes, and would rather move to another state than to share the wealth, what does it say about him and about his moral or religious beliefs? Not much, if you ask me.


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

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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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