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Celebrating Gay Pride Month


Those of us of a certain age who were born gay have special reason to celebrate this Gay Pride Month of June. It represents our release from the Babylonian Captivity of the homophobic hysteria that gripped the world for millennia.

A young gay boy or girl growing up in America today can have no idea what life was like prior to the Gay Liberation Movement of the last 40 years. This isn’t a criticism of them. Thank God they have no idea. Born free, they can look forward to living full, productive lives, knowing that here in America, at least, a majority of people happily accept the LGBTQ rainbow.

For me, discovering I was gay at the age of about 8 or 9 was one of the most awful things I’ve ever experienced. I’d had no way of knowing there was anything wrong with my natural desires, which were attracted to my male friends. It was beautiful to mess around with them. But one day, I was hanging out with some of the older boys, guys who were 14 and 15. One of them—let’s call him Larry–told a story about how he’d been flunking one of his classes, so he went to see the teacher and asked if there was anything he could do to pass. As it turned out, there was. Larry proceeded to tell his friends that the teacher, an older man, said if Larry let him perform oral sex on him (actually, Larry used the more common vulgarity for the act), then the teacher would pass him. And that’s what happened.

As Larry reached this point in the story, the other guys groaned and made various expressions of disgust. “Oh my God!” they said. “That’s disgusting.” Larry said, “Yeah. There’s people like that around. They’re called ‘fags.’ They like other guys, not girls.”

As I took all this in, my head began to spin, my heart pounded and my stomach sank into my bowels. “That’s what I am,” I thought to myself. “A fag. And, judging from the reaction of these guys, that’s a terrible, awful, horrible thing to be. I have to keep it secret for the rest of my life.”

That was the moment I disappeared into the closet. I didn’t come out for nearly 30 years, when, in 1982, living in San Francisco and leading an active gay life, I finally decided to overcome my fears and let everyone know I was gay.

This June of 2021 also marks the 40th anniversary (if that’s the right word) of the appearance of AIDS in the world. In San Francisco, of course, we were at Ground Zero of the epidemic. For a while, it seemed like we were all going to die. Many of us did. I did not. Those of us who survived made it through, which is another reason to celebrate.

After the AIDS pandemic broke out, I volunteered for a nonprofit called The Shanti Project. They assigned me clients who were very, very sick, and I helped them out a few times a week with chores like laundry, dishwashing, food shopping, vacuuming and dusting and the like. It was my privilege to do so. I’d not been a particularly compassionate or caring person in my life, and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to do something, little as it was. Every one of my clients died during my service to them.

The gay struggle, however, isn’t over. Nations around the world still arrest, torture and murder gay men and women. Even here in our country, the so-called City on a Hill, there are millions of benighted people—primarily conservative Christians—who hate gay people and would do terrible things to us, if they had the power. They say, “Oh, I hate the sin, not the sinner,” but that’s a lie. I can imagine some Nazi pig in the 1930s in Germany saying, “Oh, I don’t hate the Jews. But we must do something about them.” I have nothing but contempt for homophobes.

To all who are gay who read this – to all who are not gay but who support LGTBQ rights – bless you and keep you in this summer season. Be healthy, continue to do right as you perceive the right. May we all succeed in the continuing struggle for human rights.

Doggie thoughts


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


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


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


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!

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