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Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’


Over recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with several different friends from out of town, all friends who came from different cities and from previous lives of mine. Not only was it wonderful to catch up with these old friends and reminisce about times gone by, but it was a compelling opportunity to look back on my journey, to see all of the dots that have connected, and to reflect on all of the wonderful souls who have touched and shaped my path along this winding road of life.

Boston, MA

The first of these friends, Simone, was visiting from my home city of Boston. We began working together when I was a mere 23 years old, fairly fresh out of college and wet behind the ears. Looking back on that young age, now 14 years later, it is hard to even recognize the person that I once was. I was just barely beginning my journey into adulthood and I had so much to learn, and so many tough lessons that were still ahead of me. In my wildest imagination (or nightmares!), I could not have conceived of what was yet to come. I was, however, fortunate enough to land the job of a lifetime. For several years we organized student tours abroad and got to reap the benefit of traveling to exciting, foreign lands. This was a professional life filled with wonderful friends, laughter, hilarious travel stories and adventures and simply joyful and rewarding times. These were the days of our lives.

Fast forward five years and I would find myself a new resident of the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, and a newly enrolled graduate student. Having left behind a broken heart and dark clouds in Boston, I was starting over in a new life, preparing to embark on a career of international diplomacy and peace-keeping. However, a semester of confusion, dissatisfaction and feeling like a fish out of water, would eventually lead to my leaving graduate school and landing serendipitously in a job working for an International Human Rights organization. This is where I would meet Lauren, the second visitor to San Francisco in recent weeks.

Washington, DC

Lauren and I would become part of what I coined the “The Sex and the City” foursome of ladies who would get together regularly for dinner and girl talk. These friends were the rocks that kept me grounded during my four years in Washington. Lauren would witness me evolve into my first management role in the .com world, she would see me grapple with the stresses of a high-pressure, long-hour career, and she would see me struggle through a confusing yet painfully beautiful long-distance “relationship,” a relationship which would eventually leave me completely shattered, turned inside out and gasping for air. About to embark on what would turn out to be my “dark night of the soul,” Lauren would be part of the good group of friends that would send me off on my forever-destined journey to the west coast, leaving behind my east coast life and friends, leaving behind a part of myself.

The journey west would take me to Los Angeles, a city that would unwittingly become home to the deepest depression, the most gripping pain and the most intense struggle of my life. But simultaneously, and somewhat ironically, it would become the most bewitching and magical place I have ever lived, deeply connecting with the fibers of my spirit. Filling me up with her bittersweet nectar, Los Angeles would eventually become the gateway to a profound spiritual awakening, a complete transformation and a brand new Jeannie, alchemized by the fire of life.

Magical Los Angeles

Enter Garrett. A childhood friend of the family, Garrett had known me since I was a young girl and he had seen me grow into a woman. He had known me through various lives and several different versions of myself. Upon my arrival in Los Angeles, he was one of the only people I knew and was often the only shoulder to cry on during a very dark time. Garrett was witness to the darkest years of my life, the most profound turmoil through which I have walked, and for this I am grateful.

I am grateful because today when I met Garrett and his girlfriend for coffee in downtown San Francisco, while they were visiting from Los Angeles, I was able to shine brightly and tell Garrett how happy I am, how much joy, wonder and magic I experience on a daily basis. Had Garrett not been there to witness my lowest point, I’m not sure anyone would truly know how extraordinary and powerful my transformation has been, and how grateful I am for all of the trials and tribulations that have led me to this place.

As I look back on these friends, and the many others who have laughed with me, cried with me, fought with me and walked alongside me, I am deeply touched by the indelible marks that each one has left on my soul. It is often said that we should not look back to the past, but I profoundly disagree. There is so much grace and beauty in putting the pieces together and making sense of how the journey unfolded. Some of the most important lessons, and even revelations, of our lives come from time reflecting back on our previous journeys. It is all a beautiful, and necessary, part of our evolution.

It is true that however we might plan and plot, in large part we have no idea where are journeys will take us next, or where each path will lead; but what I am sure of is that there will be beautiful souls along the way, souls who will come into our lives to help us along our journey. There will be souls who help us, souls who hurt us, and there will be souls who crack us wide open, but each one of these souls has a purpose and a powerful lesson to teach us. And as we walk along our path, however much it twists and turns, and however dark, scary and painful it may become at times… we should embrace the journey.

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Me and my brothers in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

My very first introduction to San Francisco was at the tender age of six when my mother took me and my two brothers across the country on a 2-week train trip. I don’t remember much of San Francisco, except for this photo missing my two front teeth. That and the crookedest street in the world. It, like many experiences of my early years, faded into the recesses of my memory.

Some 20 years later I would be sitting in my office in Boston, daydreaming about moving to San Francisco with one of my best friends and colleagues. I’m not sure why we had it in our heads that San Francisco should be our destination; perhaps it was the fact that both of our older brothers had already moved there, perhaps it was the adventure of moving west towards a new frontier, perhaps it was the romanticism of a place we couldn’t fully imagine, some place new, different, exciting. Perhaps it was simply the fantasy of leaving everything behind and starting over, a new person in a new life.

San Francisco skyline

Despite our daydreams, life had other plans for both of us. She, my colleague and friend, ended up on her own adventures between New York City, Paris and Washington, DC. My own path led me to Washington, DC and then finally west, but to a different destination… Los Angeles. Though I had spent all of that time dreaming about San Francisco, circumstances had led me elsewhere, and San Francisco just didn’t appear to be in the cards. That is until 2009, when a series of events “inadvertently” led me right to the place of my previous daydreams… I had finally landed in San Francisco.

At first it was a love-hate relationship. My heart was stuck in Los Angeles, and that coupled with my love of the warm weather of Southern California, meant that I was pretty miserable and found every reason to complain about San Francisco. It was not living up to my dreams of all those years before.

But as it always does, time went by and things began to change. My heart-strings began to release their tight grip on Los Angeles and I began opening up more to the idea of San Francisco being home. Little by little I began to acclimate to the weather, I began to find a new community of friends, I began to plant roots. San Francisco was becoming home. As it did so, the beauty around me began to become more and more apparent. Every time I would walk to yoga, I would stand in awe of the spectacular view of the skyline that was simply the backdrop of my walk through Alamo Square. The succulent scent of California’s year-round flowers wafted into my nostrils everywhere I went. The breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge would render me speechless each time I passed over it or caught a glimpse of it from atop a high vista point in the city. The stunning views of the San Francisco Bay, dotted with beautiful sailboats, would come into my eyesight during a routine walk or drive. On almost a daily basis I would find myself amazed by the staggering beauty around me and exclaiming to myself, “My God. How on earth do I live HERE?”

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands

As a writer dedicated to focusing on the positive and seeking out the joy of life, I strive every day to appreciate the beauty that is all around me and to not take it for granted. But like any human, even I have my moments when I lose sight of it. Tonight was one of those moments. As we just changed the clocks and it is suddenly getting dark much earlier than it was previously, I found myself disappointed by the loss of light in the day. As I was preparing to leave for yoga this evening, I posted this update to my Facebook page:

“Really not thrilled about it being DARK for my walk to yoga.”

Looking out the window I could see that it was dark and I was not looking forward to the walk in the cold, especially when I was so used to taking this lovely walk with the warm sun on my back.

I headed out the door and onto my usual route to yoga, which takes me through Alamo Square, home of The Painted Ladies. The minute I set foot into the park, I once again stood in awe. In the crisp fall air, the city was sparkling with absolute brilliance against the night sky, cradled by the glow of the bright moon above. I was immediately humbled and realized the error of my ways with my previous Facebook post. It was ironic that I was on my way to yoga. One of the themes that we frequently explore in yoga is the embracing of not only the light, but also the dark, the shadow side of life. As the seasons change and we move into a darker time, the yoga invites us to explore the darker side of ourselves, our experiences and our emotions. And it invites us to embrace both, to see the beauty in both, the opportunity for growth which comes from each. As I reflected on my dissatisfaction about the days turning into night, I realized that I was missing out on the opportunity to embrace both the light and the dark. And as I walked through Alamo Square and marveled at the beauty of the night scene around me, I felt nothing but wonder and gratitude.

San Francisco at night, from Alamo Square

I thought about the 6-year old me sitting in front of the Golden Gate Bridge with my brothers, completely unaware of the fact that this would one-day be my home. I thought about the 20-something me daydreaming with my friend about San Francisco, about how we would get there and what it would be like. And I thought about the current me who had evolved from a place of daydreaming, to ambivalence about a city, to embracing it as my home. And as I looked at the stunning skyline glittering beneath the light of the moon, I was overcome with emotion and I once again thought to myself, “My God. How do I live HERE?”

This post is dedicated to Jules, who has forever been my ally and friend
along this journey.

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Cathedral of Cusco

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. We were walking through the main square of Cusco, Peru, towards the majestic Cathedral glistening in the afternoon sun, when Danielle said to me, “It’s all perfect Jeannie. You are simply in the gestation period, things are incubating. You are getting ready to have a rebirth.” Who is Danielle and to what on earth was she referring? Danielle Hougard was the Anusara Yoga teacher who was leading me on my first ever yoga retreat. But she was not just any yoga teacher. Danielle is one of those special “Earth Mother” types, the type of woman who exudes love and motherly instincts from every cell of her body, the type of woman who is truly in touch with her intuition, the Spirit of Earth and Sky, and the energies of every living creature around her. This is a wise women who just seems to “know” things, and somehow when she says them you just know that you can trust her.

Danielle was responding to my story of how my life had fallen into ruins: I had moved across country to fight for love, only to find myself rejected and abandoned. If that wasn’t enough I had arrived at the beginning of the recession and was thrust headfirst into months of unemployment. Running out of money and desperate for work, I was compelled to take a minimum wage job at a retail store. It was depressing enough that I had gone from a successful, high-paying management career in Washington, DC, to making minimum wage, but in the depths of my own heartache, I was now forced to endure hundreds of happy couples strolling about arm in arm as the irritating Christmas carols pumped out incessantly through the loudspeakers of the shopping mall. But worst of all, every day I lived in fear that the man who had broken my heart would stroll in with HIS new girlfriend on his arm. This was my rock bottom. If there is a Hell on Earth, this was definitely it.

Fortunately through a stroke of “luck,” I was finally able to find a “real” job. Things were looking up, I could finally leave my minimum wage job and get back to building my career….Or so I thought. Sadly my luck would not last and I was laid off several months later, and found myself yet again in a period of protracted unemployment. So here I was in Peru, six months after having been laid off and I hadn’t had a single bite to the hundreds of resumes sent. My life was completely stagnating. I was having no luck on the job front, no luck on the love front, every cell in my body ached and mourned for the loss of my best friend, and I was depressed to the point where I did not want to get out of bed in the morning. The only thing I could feel in my life was a palpable feeling of stagnation. I was completely stuck.

Danielle’s response to this story was a friendly smile and a reassuring nod, telling me that everything I had just described was actually “PERFECT,” that although on the surface it felt like things were stagnating, that actually behind the scenes there were forces at work, and that I was simply in the gestation period…that I was simply getting ready for a powerful rebirth. Though to my rational (and depressed!) mind this sounded a little bit unusual and way too good to believe, the certainty with which she spoke these words gave me a momentary peace. I prayed that she was right.

By now you may be wondering what I was doing in Peru after the story I just described and given my obvious state of unemployment. Well, call me a risk-taker, but when life gets really dark and gloomy, that’s when something deep inside of me says “SCREW IT” and propels me to go do something incredible and adventurous, to try to drag myself reluctantly out of the muck. All of my life I had dreamed of going to Peru. When I was in high school Spanish class, my teacher would show us pictures of Machu Picchu and I just knew that I had to go there one day. So when I found myself in the midst of my “dark night of the soul,” and completely stuck, I knew I had to do something to try to unstick myself.

Several days after walking through that square in Cusco, we found ourselves on the very tip-top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, high above the breath-taking, mind-boggling and awe-inspiring creation that was Machu Picchu. This masterpiece defied human logic and comprehension. Its ruins were perfectly intact, each of its thousands of individual stones stacked so flawlessly and at such exquisitely engineered angles that they would remain intact and stable for hundreds of years of enduring the elements. There are honestly not any words I could ever use to adequately express what it felt like to be standing up there at 8,920 ft, literally on top of the world. As I looked around us, I was overcome with goosebumps at the beauty of the jagged, majestic mountains that shot dramatically up into the heavens, hugged and nurtured by the blankets of fog. If there was a God, he/she was certainly here. I felt the great Spirit of the Earth in the wind that whispered into my ears, in the Sun that warmed my back, and in the solid stone beneath my feet, stones that had held the weight and cradled the souls of hundreds of thousands of humans across the centuries. I was awed to my core. Standing up here at this great height, surrounded by the magic and mystery of Mother Earth, I knew I was being supported.

Me on top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, with Machu Picchu far below

At the end of our 10-day journey, completely moved and humbled by the Grace, beauty and humility of the Peruvian people, we returned home to the States, and I back to the chains of stagnation in Los Angeles. The minute I touched down in Los Angeles, I knew I had to leave. I am a stubborn person. And because I loved Los Angeles and felt a profound spiritual connection with her, I had previously been determined to stay there, despite the fact that the signs seemed to point elsewhere. But now the Universe had given me a breadcrumb to follow. You see, this yoga group, led by this sweet soul Danielle, was actually from San Francisco, and I only found them through an “accidental” twist of fate through a web search. Nobody on the trip could figure out why I was staying in Los Angeles after the horror I had described. They encouraged me to move to San Francisco. Considering that my life was completely stagnant and that I had already lost everything of importance that I could possibly stand to lose, I decided it was time to break free of my prison.

This is when Grace took over. Only five days after moving to San Francisco, for what was intended to be a one-month temporary sublet to test out the waters, a job offer had fallen unexpectedly into my lap. Over the weeks that followed, I frantically looked for a permanent apartment in San Francisco, searched desperately for someone to take over my lease in Los Angeles, packed up my entire one-bedroom apartment in 24 hours and drove the entire load, by myself, the six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then started my new job the next day. Just like that, my life had shifted dramatically. Danielle’s words about an impending “rebirth” were ringing in my ears. But what I didn’t know was that this was just barely the beginning. I was only in the earliest contractions and still had over a year of “labor” ahead of me.

17 months later, after months and months of undue stress and anxiety in my corporate job, I was let go. Bowled over by the unexpected blow, I picked myself back up and threw myself immediately back into the job search. But the minute I did so, another breadcrumb was laid down for me. I had written my very first blog post, about my journey of healing through yoga, and it had felt good. But not only did it feel good, it got a good response. Somehow, as if in a daze, I suddenly found myself with my own blog and I began writing. Never having had any interest in being a writer, it was as if a higher force had suddenly taken over and was simply pulling my puppet-strings and moving me along a new and unexpected path. But this path felt right.

Now only eight short months since losing my job, I have over 20,000 beautiful, bilingual fans in 35 countries around the world, my work has been published in several different publications, I am now a regular contributor to Elephant Journal, writing in both English and Spanish, I’m about to be featured in Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine, and I have just completed and submitted my very first book proposal, with the hope that I will soon be a published writer. I couldn’t have imagined this dramatic turn of events in my life even eight months ago when I lost my job. In fact almost daily I look back and scratch my head with delight and wonder. But there would be no way in my wildest, craziest dreams that I could have imagined this, as we walked through that square in Cusco talking about my impending “rebirth.”

A few weeks ago we had a reunion from our Peru trip, now just past the two-year mark since we took our trip, and I was reminding Danielle of this moment from Cusco. Danielle then told me something that I hadn’t yet known, something that made this entire experience even more unbelievable and magical to me: the name Cusco means “navel of the Earth.” Danielle had been right, I was in the gestation period and I was getting ready for a “rebirth.” What I hadn’t realized was that I had to go to Cusco, the “navel of the Earth,” in order for the “rebirth” to begin…

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Balinese Offering

As previously featured on Elephant Journal.

I had been warned that I would experience reverse culture-shock upon returning from Bali, one of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. I have a little bit of first-hand experience with this concept, having spent my junior year of college living abroad in Spain. When I returned back to the United States and then to a small, rural college town in New England, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I had gone from a diverse and international community in the midst of a pulsating urban center with a rich cultural and artistic history, to being in the middle of farmland in one of the least diverse states in the nation. So yes, I knew all about reverse culture-shock. But I was only going to Bali on a two-week yoga retreat; surely that was not enough time to experience any kind of culture shock upon my return. I was not worried.

I guess I should have heeded the warning. After the 24 or so hour journey home from Denpasar, we landed in San Francisco late on a Sunday night. My body had no idea what time it was; it didn’t know if it should eat, sleep, or go for a walk! It happened to be just before midnight on what would be the 4th of July, a surreal time to be arriving back home from my first ever trip to Asia. As we drove into the city, headed down the Octavia St. ramp and then made the turn onto Fell St., I was very aware of the fact that I was experiencing the exact same sensation I had had when I found my feet back on the rural earth of New England, all of those years prior; I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. San Francisco is a very vibrant and lively city, full of energy, and as the city was teeming with tourists for the 4th of July festivities, one would imagine it being even more so; and to the average bystander it probably felt exactly that: alive. But to me that night it felt like a dead zone. As we drove past the dark and austere buildings of brick and wood, the city seemed almost depressed to me.

Why did it all of a sudden look so different to me? Bali had provided a stark contrast. The island is famous for being a “spiritually elevated” place with some of the world’s most happy and smiling inhabitants. And that description couldn’t have proved more true. In Bali the idea of community is one of their most important themes. Within a particular village, all of the men are required to join what is called a “Banjar”, essentially the Balinese equivalent of a community organization. The Banjar meets weekly to discuss and decide on issues that impact everyone in the village; such as when to fix a road, rebuild a side-walk or whether or not to allow a bar to open. The men of the village take their Banjar responsibilities very seriously and any men that neglect their Banjar duties are fined accordingly.

In addition to the Banjar, the rest of the villagers are heavily involved in their communities as well. They all work together to organize and perform in local, traditional dance performances, which take place often on a daily basis. They help one another out in times of need. If someone’s house catches fire, you will see the entire community grabbing buckets of water and running to the scene to help. The community also comes together in times of ritual and celebration. In Balinese Hinduism, the highest honor that a person can receive is to have a cremation ceremony. When it comes time for this elaborate and beautiful ceremony, the entire community will come together to assist with the building of the cremation tower and to celebrate the life and right of passage of the deceased.

Balinese life very much takes place in the streets. You see the happy Balinese people out and about (amidst the dogs and hundreds of chickens!) walking, talking to one another, welcoming tourists. And everywhere you look you will see smiles, wider ear to ear smiles than I have ever seen. You see men and women alike bringing their sacred offerings to their Temples, multiple times a day; all to honor and appease the Deities in order to bring blessings upon their village, and the citizens within the village. Community is everything in Bali.

So imagine I come home to a society where it is rare for anybody to talk to their neighbors (unless you have a complaint!), where we spend much of our time isolated either in our homes or in our cars, or in our offices working like dogs, and where if you regularly smile at strangers who pass you on the street, you will more likely than not be taken for a crazy person! This city that had once felt so alive and energized to me, now felt very cold and harsh…and concrete.

What shocked me most of all was the number of homeless people in San Francisco. Knowing that I live in a city with one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, this should not come as a surprise to me. I see it everyday, day and night, no matter where I go. But the reason that this was suddenly so glaring to me is that in Bali I saw none. Here I was in what the US would consider a “Third Word Country” and I did not see a single person sleeping on the streets or pan-handling. How could this be? I’ve traveled to plenty of Third and even Second and First world countries and seen ample and visible homelessness. So how is it that on this island of nearly four million people, I didn’t see any? The answer is the “family compound”.

Balinese family in their family compound

Anyone who knows me personally knows that this term has a funny, personal connotation to me. You see, my dad comes from a large Italian family, and because several of the siblings built their houses on the same plot of land, side by side and back to back to one another, they have created what we in my family call the “compound”. Well, it seems that my Italian relatives may have been onto something. In Bali, everyone lives in what they call a “family compound”. The oldest brother is the head of the compound, the wives then follow their husbands to their family compounds, and then the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren all live together, all working together to support the family compound and its members. So you see, it would be really difficult to become homeless in Bali, because even if a member of the family finds themselves jobless or down and out, because they live in the family compound, they are supported by the rest of the family. Very simply put, the Balinese take care of their own.

So to come home to San Francisco, where on any given day I can see 10-20 people, without homes, without any way to wash themselves, pushing around all of their Wordly possessions in their grocery carts, wondering where they will find their next meal; was a sobering experience to say the least. I found myself wondering how this can be in the richest country in the world when a “Third World” island like Bali has no such problem.

Another element of Balinese society that stood out to me is the way they care for their elderly. They remain in the family compound, as the family elders to impart their wisdom on the grandchildren, and they are very much involved with the day to day functions of the family unit: cooking meals, making offerings, contributing to any family artisanship (ex. mask-making, puppet-making, etc). I came back to America thinking about the fact that we so often put our elderly in nursing homes, that we essentially pawn them off on someone else to take care of them. Now I recognize that this has just become somewhat of a norm in our society and that many people do it out of necessity, and certainly not out of any lack of love. I know it is a horrible decision for many people to have to make. But when I saw this very distinct society that has found a much more humane way to take care of their elders, through the family compound, it simply seemed barbaric to me that our society has developed in the way that it has.

The last aspect of Balinese society that really struck me as beautiful and contrasting to our own was their devotion; their devotion to Earth and Spirit equally. When Hinduism came to Indonesia from India, as early as the first Century, it mixed with the animist religions that already existed on the Indonesian archipelago, forming a unique brand of Hinduism, which today remains only on the island of Bali.  Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds, and that spirits exist not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants and all other parts of nature.  The Balinese people very much live off of the land, and because of this belief that we, the Earth and everything on it, are all part of Spirit, they have a deep respect and reverence for all parts of nature. Being an agrarian society, with rice being the most important crop, the Balinese take special care to nurture their fields. They understand that if they disrespect the land, that it will cause everything and everyone to be out of balance. For that reason they spend pain-staking amounts of time and energy to honor their Deities, the Gods of the sky, the Gods of the rice, etc, by making beautiful little baskets of offerings. To walk about Bali is to see hundreds of offerings, everywhere. You will see them on cars, in front of storefronts, in restaurants, at Temple gates, and on sidewalks. As a tourist you really have to watch your step to not step on them as you go. Multiple times a day you see men and women alike coming out in their lovely sarongs and Temple scarves, to leave a beautiful offering at a Temple.

Balinese woman leaving daily offerings at temple gate

When is the last time any of us went outside and thanked the land for providing us with our food and water? What does our society do to stay in balance with Earth and Spirit? I’ll let you answer that for yourselves. I have my own thoughts on the matter.  But I do know that many of our own Native American tribes do this. The society that I have described above is very similar to Shamanic societies all around the world. I have studied much on this favorite topic of mine, as it is something from which I believe we can learn great lessons. I am intrigued by how native societies all over the world, thousands of miles apart, have developed very similar rituals and ways of living that honor the Spirits around them, the Spirits of Earth and Sky. If I can apply a pop-culture reference, if any of you have seen “Avatar”, then perhaps you know what I’m talking about. That film was poignantly timed and did a powerful job of illustrating the beauty and wisdom of a Shamanic society, of the importance of respecting, honoring and integrating with the land around us. Picture the scenes in “Avatar” and you can pretty much picture Bali.

So what is my point? Am I saying that Bali is a better place to live than America? Bali is a beautiful, magical, spiritually “elevated” place, that is absolutely true. And would I accept an invitation to live there, even if only for a while? You better believe it! But I am not saying that any one place is better to live than the other, and I have to state that because I know that there will be people who read this and make that mistake. I definitely recognize the wonderful things about the United States (as I did after my adjustment home from Spain as well), but the beautiful thing about travel is that it gives you perspective, perspective to see what is good about one’s society and what we have to be thankful for; but it also provides us with the perspective to see what is not so good about our own societies, what can be improved upon and where we have room to grow as a people.

I believe the true definition of a Patriot is someone who is not so arrogant to believe that they are better than everyone else, but rather is humble enough to know that he can learn from other people, other cultures. And while a country that still performs animal sacrifice, a country that does not use toilet paper and a country where offerings are made to appease the Gods, would most often be considered “primitive” by the Western world, instead I would argue that it has a lot to teach us. The real question is, are we humble enough to learn?

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Today I decided to have lunch down in the Marina. I will admit that I’m really not a fan of the Marina. It’s a very wealthy neighborhood of San Francisco, and I find it to be a bit snooty and ostentatious, at least for my taste. But that said, I’m always up for checking out a new neighborhood, so I went to the Chestnut Street area for the first time to check out the lunch options.

As I walked around I saw only the fanciest cars, Mercedes and Beamers everywhere. I also saw what I can only describe as a fascinating cultural phenomenon, that I call the “Modern-day Stepford Wives”. Now of course it’s 2011 and it’s San Francisco, so I live in the most liberated of times and places. But yet so many of the women in the Marina appear to be stuck in the 1950s, minus the clothes. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with anyone choosing to stay home with children. I think it’s admirable and frankly anyone that has the opportunity to do so is very fortunate. But what I find fascinating about these “Stepford Wives” of the Marina is the updated version of a very old-fashioned lifestyle. They are all pushing the “Rolls Royces” of baby carriages, many with nannies in tow so that they can wrangle with the children while Mommy does her shopping. And instead of wearing the 1950’s dress with apron, they are all wearing the latest, expensive yoga gear, showing off their tight little bottoms, thanks to their expensive personal trainers. Many of them have the same blond highlights and manicures, and gigantic, blinding diamonds to decorate their perfectly painted nails.

While I was happy to observe and take in the bizarre scenery, I decided that this was definitely not the place for me. I ducked into the local “Squat & Gobble” to grab a sandwich, and then I would get the heck out of this land that felt so foreign to me. It was just about noon and I was the first person in the joint. I looked forward to a quiet lunch of contemplation…

Not even 5 minutes later my peace and quiet was spoiled as the restaurant was invaded by multiple gaggles of mommies and their perfectly primped and seemingly spoiled children. The place quickly became a riot zone. Unruly children were screaming and running all over the place, while their mommies paid little attention and were instead engrossed in deep conversation. And I use the term “deep” loosely. I overheard the conversations next to me. One set of women were talking about their latest visit to the spa, while another set of women were talking about how poor Suzie’s husband was cheating on her. I sat there saddened; saddened by what society has become; by the obsession with accumulating the most number of material things; by the incessant need to keep up with the Jones’; by what appears to be the complete oblivion to what is really important in life.

In that moment an older gentleman sat at the table next to me. I immediately thought that he must be somebody’s Grandpa and that soon enough another group of screaming children would add to the insanity. Thankfully I was wrong. He was having lunch by himself. We immediately began to talk.

Over the next half hour I had the most wonderful conversation with this man. He was originally from New York City, but had lived in San Francisco since the 1960s. As I’m also from the northeast, we bantered back and forth about the cultural differences between east and west and we commiserated about the authenticity of people in New York City. He commented on how this neighborhood, the Marina, was so full of superficiality and how he preferred the people of New York, describing them with, “What you see is what you get.” Now, I’ve never met a New Yorker I didn’t like. This man was no exception. I chuckled to myself that he was expressing the very same thoughts that I had just had about this neighborhood. But more importantly, I loved the openness, the realness with which this man spoke. He immediately reminded me of my father. As a kid, my dad was always embarrassing us by talking to every stranger with which he came in contact. But now, as an adult, I appreciate this to be one of my dad’s best attributes. This man, like my father, had no pretense. He was who he was, and he was openly sharing and connecting with me about his life.

We talked about our careers and my recent reintroduction into the land of unemployment. I learned that he is a psychiatrist, and he talked about all of the fascinating places that he had worked over the years. We discovered that we had gone to the same graduate school, GW University, albeit 40 years apart. I pondered how different a place Washington, DC must have been when he was living there, versus when I was there in the early 2000s. I loved that although he was old enough to be my father, that we were bridging a gap across time by sharing these parallel experiences.

We then talked about our families. He told me about his children, his 2 daughters both about my age. I shared with him the fact that I was sure I’d have children by now and how my life had taken a different turn. What he told me next is what made this conversation all the more compelling. He told me that his wife is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease…

In an instant, time and space froze around me. The women with their shallow conversation and their big diamonds suddenly seemed so irrelevant. I immediately offered my condolences to him. Without skipping a beat, he of course thanked me, but went on to clarify, “My wife is a positive person. She is an amazingly strong woman.” In that moment it was clear to me that he, and his wife, were at peace with what was happening. I could sense that he had accepted it as part of the natural cycle of life. Here was a man who has lived a full live, has had the bounty of a loving family with children, a successful career, the opportunity to experience living and traveling in different places, and now he was entering the evening of his life.

What had started out as a day observing and being disappointed by the material superficiality of our society, had turned into a beautiful opportunity to gain perspective. And I was reminded once again that life is not about who has the biggest diamond or the fanciest car. Life is about living…and dying. It is about love. It is about rich experiences. And most importantly it is about true human connections.

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