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Sister Gloria, Luke and OracleWorld: Values at the Crossroads

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Wednesday, November 15th, 2006 — There we were, Sister Gloria and I, happily squeezed into our own little table for two in the middle of an army of schmoozing techies.

This was OracleWorld week and hotels and restaurants in the Bay Area were booked solid.

Spago's was no exception. In fact, either I'm way out of touch or the restaurant had raised its prices by about 25 percent in anticipation of the crowds. No matter. This was the twice-yearly girls' night out for Sister Glo and me. Schmoozers aren't the only ones who can pull out plastic at the end of a meal.

Spago's might seem like an unlikely venue to entertain a "woman of the cloth," but we've come to look forward to our visits there. It's pure escapism. We're pampered. The food is always a treat.

But the real reason we keep coming back is Luke.

Luke is a charming waiter-philosopher. I kid Sister Gloria that he has his eye on her. On our first visit, he asked her if she was a Dominican sister. She is, and for Luke meeting her was like coming home. He shared fond memories of the sisters who had taught him. But more than that he credits the sisters with sparking his lifelong fascination with words and ideas, especially as they relate to the deeper meanings of life.

On one visit, Luke pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket with the heading: "7 results for: organize." Each day he asks the secretary to find a particular word in an on-line dictionary and print out the results. He was interested in the word "organize" because of its associations with the Zen principle of a unified spirit. He gave me the page. I still refer to it. Like Luke, I could do worse than mull over ideas like: organize: "to form as or into a whole consisting of interdependent or coordinated parts," or "... to put (oneself) in a state of mental competence to perform a task."

This particular night, when Sister Gloria and I crashed the OracleWorld party, Luke was in fine form. He shared tidbits of philosophy, and tasty extras -- freebies as Sister Gloria reported to my husband the next day -- courtesy of the kitchen staff. Gloria and I laughed a lot and cried a little as we caught up on all that was going on in our respective lives. By the end of the evening we had consumed a delicious meal, tapped into a treasured friendship and enjoyed the company of another human being in a way that the ordinary rush of our days doesn't allow.

Yet how do the techies fit into this picture? For one thing, the restaurant might have been empty without them. Without Oracle and other firms like it there might not be a Spago's at all. But here's the real hook: The code name for the convention was OneWorld. I couldn't help but notice the connection -- pardon the pun -- between OneWorld and the organizing principle of Luke's "unified spirit."

One cannot pick up a newspaper these days without reading about values. Most recently, "San Francisco values" has become a cliche among politicians -- local and national. It is the latest slur against the social and political liberalism of the Bay Area. As the shouting match over values gets louder the real issues are obscured. We'd do better to think about being "interdependent or coordinated parts" of a whole.

Rather than considering other people as opponents, we could decide that most people are good people who want to do the right thing. If we meet and mingle with this attitude, differences start to fade away.

Herb Caen, long-time columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, dubbed San Francisco Baghdad-by-the-Bay. It was long before the Gulf War and the current war in Iraq. Far from being a slur, the name recalled San Francisco's physical beauty. It also referred to its charm and fascination as a culture at the crossroads.

Being open to new ideas, different cultures and progressive thinking were considered desirable characteristics, then.

Times change. Today, no American would consider using the name Baghdad-by-the-anything. But changing times do not lessen the need to think about what we value. For me, it includes enjoying deep connections with good friends like Sister Gloria and serendipitous connections with people like Luke.

Like most people, I value the freedom to be myself without being judged by or feeling the need to judge others whose appearance and interests are different. Echoing the newly re-elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, "It's the California Way."

The values debate affects us all. It has the potential to drive a wedge between decent people. But there are strong values that bring people together and unify. No doubt we have our differences, but those need not keep us from enjoying a unified spirit and the connections of OneWorld.