I Wanna Be Like Mike
I don’t know how anyone makes it through winter, sometimes. The temperatures in the northern half of the U.S. over the past couple of weeks have been frightening to read. The highways are coated with ice, and 18-wheelers, mid-sized sedans, S.U.V.s and punch-buggies are flying off across the road shoulders into snowbanks and slush-ponds at an astounding clip. People can’t get to their offices, schools, supermarkets. There’s not enough heating fuel in some places, not enough sweaters and blankets in others. I’m headed off to Kentucky and Ohio in a few days, and to Boston in a few more weeks, and I’ve been anxiously monitoring the national weather data, hoping for a sign that mild weather is on the way.
Has our sense of mastery over the ambient conditions of life on this precious little planet been another foolish illusion? Are we supposed to actually KNOW what it’s like to be at the mercy of the elements? Whew! Good question.
Imagine three or four months every year without P.G.&E., (or ConEd) without TV, without a thermostat, without R-45 insulation, without motor vehicles, subways, jets to the Caribbean or the South Pacific. Without email, or phones, malls or billboards.
When I try this exercise, I always think of how important my connections to other people are, and also feel thankful for the gifts of imagination and curiosity that lead us to story-telling. On those long, cold nights, in the bleak midwinter, it’s our human connections and the stories we can tell that see us through.
Besides being entertaining, stories provide a way to orient ourselves in the constantly shifting constellations that comprise our identities. The most elemental, profound stories, the myths, guide us again and again, some might say, even if we don’t know them. The story that concerns itself with carrying on through the dark and cold of winter (or of one’s inner struggles, or of aging, and dying) is invoked each year, of course, in the celebrations of Christmas, of Hannukah, of New Year’s, and of countless other traditions. Invoked or not, I feel it in the elemental, emerging person-hood of my grandchildren, and in my growing, joyful connection to them, as I feel the truth of my own advancing age magnify.
In a simplified version of the story, we bestow upon each child the mantle of redeemer, we invest in him and her “the hopes and fears of all the years,” recognizing, as they begin to take the stage, that our own brief hour on that stage has not carried that burden to safety.
Apart from our relations to children and grandchildren, we might offer a similar bestowal to, say, a great athlete, or musician, or scientist, by comparison to whom we are made to understand that our own gifts are modest, after all. After realizing, an awfully long time ago, that I would never break Babe Ruth’s or Roger Maris’ home run records, it was both a relief, and a source of joy to have someone else come along who could do it; I was glad to let Mark McGwire, and then Barry Bonds, become the shining lights.
Which brings me to Mike Bonaccorsi, a truly magnificent young man whose shining light was suddenly, shockingly extinguished a couple of weeks back, at the all-too-young age of forty-three.
When I first met Mike, at a celebration for the opening of a colleague’s winery, 15 years ago, he was the sommelier at Masa’s restaurant in San Francisco, widely regarded, at the time, as occupying the pinnacle of the top tier of great restaurants in California. So when, after I’d shaken Mike’s hand he said, earnestly, with an easy smile, “I’m really thrilled to meet you; I love your wines,” I was floored. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? I was thrilled to meet him, but given how small, new, and, mainly, unknown we were in 1989, I was hard-pressed to imagine he’d ever heard of us. We chatted for awhile, that afternoon, and the more we spoke, the more impressed I was with what an appealing person he was. I remember thinking, almost from the moment we met, “gee—I wish I could be like that.”
Someone recently remarked that Mike could have been a movie star, and it’s true; he was blessed with exceptional good looks. He was a gifted wine taster, and a devoted student of wine, and clearly he had no way to go in this world but up.
After a time at Masa’s, I think Mike got restless. He took a couple of jobs in the wholesale end of the business, then, eventually became sommelier at Spago in Beverly Hills. Eventually, too, Mike got the same bug that bites so many of us who devote ourselves to wine; he decided to become a winemaker.
His approach to winemaking seems to have been the same as it had been in his life as a sommelier; he was studious, devoted, intense, and really good at it. He seemed to the casual observer, to have been born to do what he was doing. He seemed to move through his life with the confidence, ease, and grace of good King Wenceslas, and everyone adored him. It would be easy to imagine, given the success he’d already achieved, and the seemingly golden touch he had, that he might have become full of himself, and thought himself far too good for most of his contemporaries, but, as long as I knew him he was uncommonly decent and good-hearted to one and all. A shining light if there ever was one.
And now, he’s gone. And that part of our hearts we gave to him, that bestowal of that part of ourselves that ached to be better than we felt we really were, we have to take that back, now, have to own it. Cause now, he’s part of us, for good.
Raise a glass then, if you will, for Mike Bonaccorsi, in this dark season, turning.