A while back I decided to have lunch down in a neighborhood called “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 five 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 Amy’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 two 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 was 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.