Masks of Morality

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Chapter 14

Caryssa had been working four months at Moms for Sustainability (MFS). At first, she had been excited. But the longer she was with the organization, she saw making a difference would be more difficult than anticipated. She started to feel compelled to shake and shock the plodding bureaucrats in the heavily carpeted county office buildings into awareness of the disastrous environmental hazards they were exposing people to, especially children.

The county level meetings Caryssa attended bi-monthly were heated discussions that got her Irish blood boiling. The county staff would sit there, first telling how they would do some of their jobs manually, and then, with a lack of staff and financials as the excuses, handle the remainder with ‘treatments.’ Treatments referred to the spraying of toxic chemicals—some of which had been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other fatal health issues—in and around schools, parks, hiking trails. Then they would nonchalantly mention they may not be able to post warning signs because it cost too much and they would finish by whining about people losing their jobs.

All in the name of some weeds! The system protected corporate greed more than people.

At first, she thought she might be able to change everything by speaking out. But she soon learned the layers of bureurocracy run too deep to change anything with mere words! There were times in those meetings she felt like stopping all her efforts, not lifting a finger for what might be a lost cause.

“Let’s present the financial analysis showing how the health costs from illness caused by such practices far outweigh the cost of the products, permits, and posting” Caryssa suggested to Sarah.

“I’ve done that already…it went over like a smelly fart in church.” Sarah, who was Founder of MFS had a Master’s in Public Health, and explained how these chemicals were all either known carcinogens, highly toxic neurotoxins, or endocrine disruptors, how they affect children, the most vulnerable.

“I even displayed heart-wrenching pictures of kids with fatal health issues linked to toxic pesticides, including a little girl with leukemia. She was a soccer player, doctors found large traces of synthetic weed killer in her bloodstream. The pesticides were systematically sprayed on her soccer field one day before games.” Caryssa flinched at this news, picturing her own child rolling around on his soccer field.

“It had no effect on the county staff, except to trigger more whining. They complained how precious their time was.” Sarah tossed a stack of papers on the table before them, while they waited for country staff to arrive.

“And here we are, about to sit through yet another meeting paying out of pocket trying to help the county’s IPM program to protect community citizens. As if a bunch of weeds would hurt anyone---beyond being a bit of an eyesore!” Caryssa was breezing through Sarah’s stack for any clues of what to say. She was about to speak to a large audience and had no chance to prepare anything. Time to wing it…

They both had given up their high incomes after bringing their children into the world, to care for them while caring for community. They attended these meetings on a volunteer basis, sharing a similar passion.

“I started this organization, after witnessing shocking chemicals used at my son’s preschool in Lafayette! “She told Caryssa. “Young children are five times more vulnerable to toxics than adults.”

One of the first things Sarah had asked Caryssa to do was to craft a letter targeting support groups for mothers as well as health and environmental groups in the county. The objective was to get more voices against the spraying of toxic pesticides and to educate homeowners being misguided by manufacturer’s false advertising of product “safety,” such as Monsanto’s Roundup.

Caryssa wrote the initial draft of the letter in a fit of characteristic passion. The tiny bellicose Irishwoman residing in her genes and subconscious urged her on, whispering to her a great injustice was being perpetrated, and it was up to her to expose this ugly truth to all the mothers on the planet.

Right then, she mentioned to Sarah “I feel disheartened some may think my letter mere words on paper. Inconsequential, disposable pages to be used for starting barbecues.”

“No!” said Sarah. “Don’t get discouraged. Think of our kids! Use that as your guiding light when you write. And speak, including momentarily in this room!”

Caryssa remembered the glow of accomplishment she felt when a new competitive analysis or article she wrote was distributed throughout the computer networking industry. At least fifty of her articles successfully published across Wireless Review, PC World, Certification Magazine, Network World, and a host of other leading trade rags.

The incredible rush she got when a magazine with her articles in it came back from the printer, and she would hold up the pages for the first time, seeing her name in print! Lining all these magazines up in towers on the floor of the condo she rented in chic Saratoga. There they were, her words, manifested as a physical thing, ready to go out and make an impact on the networked world.

And now, reflecting on her letter to Mom’s support groups, she realized she wanted to ignite social change over those wires. To bring her written words and Internetworking background together to make a positive impact. Write content with a conscience.

She recognized at once the intensity and purpose with the agenda during the peak of her career—days of public speaking in front of thousands in that global capital of the tech world. Silicon Valley. God how she had loved it

The same intensity and purpose reared its head at its current audience, as the country staff and community citizens started pouring into the conference room. According to tradition, she knew she was expected to speak at these meetings in a quiet honeyed voice, shuffling, and humble.

But mothers can at times have no sense of restraint when it comes to their children. Especially when it comes to sitting there listening in the stolid immovability of a broken system. Listening to someone who gets paid six figures to do nothing but approve the spraying of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals in places her child and other innocents may unknowingly hike, bike, and play in creeks.

So at this meeting of over a hundred people, including twenty committee advisory members, Caryssa finally let them have it. She played out her hero, Erin Brockovich:

Her voice was strong yet calm “You have been presiding over an environmental desert. This county district requires sweeping reform. It demands you forget, for a moment, about money, budgets, and balanced books. Forget about your lack of staff, building plans, ordering more products or equipment. Think instead of children, people. Human beings. Never mind other living creatures like your pets. Feel for once what IPM stands for. It is about protecting and enhancing public health. But county staff is failing to practice that in the name of getting the job done quicker, pressure from chemical companies, or out of fear of job security.”

Caryssa paused a few seconds collecting her thoughts; for once nobody cut her off, so she resumed.

“Yes, we all need to make a living. But not at the expense of humanity and life itself.” Caryssa took a moment and made eye contact with each person letting her words sink in. “You’ve all heard the statistics on what threats these actions pose, especially for children. You’ve seen the pictures of the damage already done. Perhaps you don’t have kids, or they’ve grown up so you think they are no longer vulnerable. Whatever the reason, whether it’s a dream of power, a narrowness of soul, or you’ve built a wall of hardness to humanity, you’re leaving no room for the person.”

Other than someone clearing their throat, there was not a sound, no one interrupted, even though the allotted time for speaking was only three minutes and Caryssa had gone well past it.

“Let’s quickly go through some data, shall we? How is our nation’s health trend? Esophageal cancer has tripled in past thirty years; children’s chronic lung disease such as asthma up two hundred percent in past twenty years; learning disabilities have nearly tripled; children’s cancers are up thirty percent in past forty years; women’s emerging illnesses such as fibromyalgia are increasing. Meanwhile, the US creates the second highest CO² emissions in the world, while ranking about dead last in health care out of any developed nation. It all adds up to a recipe for disaster, and the ingredients you are adding to the recipe are the poison icing on the cake.”

Caryssa shoved ten of these frightening data points down their throats, in an effort to crush them with a mountain of fear, hoping they would gag and choke on the knowledge. She wanted to bury them under the weight mindful parents today hold on their shoulders in a system creating pollution, prisons, and war for profit more than protection or the good of society.

Did she sound like a lecturer? She was sure some were thinking she needed to get laid.

But she didn’t care what they thought, only what they did. Her lips trembled as her speech came to an end, the great secret she had nursed in her soul having thundered out into the open room. Before she sat again, she shot them one last zinger: “If you are not disturbed by this, then perhaps you should not be on this committee or working for the people.”

The county staff and other committee members sat like Buddha’s, with their hands resting on ponderous pot bellies, their mouths agape with disbelief or incredulity. How could she? But not one person countered her statements.

Next, she passed out the slides to Sarah’s presentation, which had all the ugly facts and figures of America’s health trend as it relates to harmful chemicals, including heart-wrenching pictures of children with cancer scientifically linked to spraying pesticides. Many living in the most upscale areas of America.

One member made a snide remark about Caryssa being recalcitrant or not going through the chain of command, but it was not even worthy of having the secretary add the comments to the meeting minutes. In fact, Caryssa was sure not one word of what she had said would be recorded.

But she had said her piece. And if she was able to create even a small amount of social consciousness among the committee to help the world be a safer place, it’s all that mattered.

As the meeting adjourned and Sarah and Caryssa packed up to leave, Caryssa asked: “So…how did it sound, Sarah?”

“Well, it sure as hell got the message across. I saw every single person in the audience jolted by the statistics you fed them. They took notes. But Caryssa, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Truth is, there is no way to overcome the inevitable insult when one creates awareness around the way someone’s means of making a paycheck hurts citizens. And you know what? Tough shit! You did well. Who knows, maybe there will be a ripple effect.”

Sarah had been involved in speaking out at countless public meetings, including one where a multinational corporation used a cancer-causing chemical agent in building materials for Pacific Elementary School in California. Poisoning children for profits. The builder used toxic waste in the cement to cut corners. Chromium VI, the same chemical inspiring the movie Erin Brokovich. One of the company’s workers had even threatened Sarah’s life because she might hurt the corporate bottom line.

During the next county meeting, they did a joint presentation to county staff. Sarah served up the pitches, Caryssa swung from the heels. More staggering facts about our nation’s health trends and birth defects, much proven to be caused by pesticides. They finished off with a photo of a little boy with burns all over his body from these toxic chemicals being sprayed on the baseball field.

As the job went on, however, it became more and more humdrum for Caryssa. And it was very time-consuming. Not just the meetings, but doing outreach and advocacy out of her home, conference calls, refining a presentation for the right audience, proofing documents, assisting in writing grants.

Was she making a difference? Helping to restore people’s health? Awakening a social conscious at some level? She doubted it. They didn’t seem to be making any progress at all.

Those who had known her in the high tech corporate world spoke of her as highly driven. Now, she was divinely driven with this hidden motivation, committed from the foundation of her soul to humanity’s fundamental right to wellbeing. She loved what she was doing, but because it was contract work for a low-budget nonprofit, she was getting no software training, and making peanuts. Just enough to buy her some makeup now and then or get a latte.

How wonderful all that stuff Caryssa talked about during her high-powered data networking career can be. But a double-edged sword. Data mining was now able to find out everything about a person, down to her choice of bra and panties. All that data about you used to target you in direct marketing. Even children were entered into all those machines, right from birth. The data knew all secrets, including if a child had some type of learning disability. The lists sold to businesses for target email marketing and sales forecasting.

As soon as we input our name, address, credit card details, phone numbers into any online site…there goes the data, and it’s then sold or rented to businesses. With it goes our right to privacy.

Caryssa sighed. Technology. We can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it due to the overly industrialized globally competitive world we live in.

“You’ve become the former technologist warning the world about technology,” George had laughed one day after she had shared these insights with him.

“We humans are all just another number in the data world. We’ve become so inhumane with all this technology social networking sites ask us to prove we are human by unscrambling words most human eyes could never conceivably even unscramble!” she responded.

“But you are slipping back into the Stone Age, Wilma Flintstone!”

“True, where I once talked technology so much I had gigabit breath, now I have yet to go from my stupid phone to a smart phone,” Caryssa giggled. “And now, it’s hard not to want to think more about my son’s real life outside the computer-stale air of an office. And it doesn’t matter as much if I never make the big bucks I made in the high tech corporate world. It matters more to know I am giving back to society.”

“I know, honey. You’ve changed so much since we first met. I was proud of you then, and I’m proud of you now. You never stop growing. But sometimes you try to do too much community stuff”

Caryssa sighed. “Isn’t that the truth? And you know what? Here I am in beautiful, sunny California. A state among the most environmentally, socially, and technologically aware in the country. But guess what I’m doing on Saturday? Yup. I’m volunteering to pick up trash along the shore. Seriously, I can only imagine how bad it might be in many other parts of America.”

George laughed. “Former high tech business professional turned trash collector! Good thing you have a sense of humor!”

One day when Caryssa was volunteering with the green team helping pick up trash on the side of the road, a couple stopped their car beside her, with such pity in their eyes. The woman rolled down her window and held out a wad of dollar bills for Caryssa. It dawned on her, they thought she was homeless!

She was relieved to meet many others out there helping clean up the shores, people with advanced degrees, business owners, a CEO of a major non-profit. It was so refreshing to see!

“American society seems as desensitized to toxic pollution as to our culture of violence.” Caryssa eyes turned to the book she just finished reading, Parts per Million, while she pointed to it. “Case in point, Beverly Hills High School’s 2003 landmark toxic tort suit against big oil when more than a thousand people were diagnosed with cancer and other terminal illnesses—proven to be directly linked to the oil derricks pumping up and down the school’s athletic fields.

If this happened in wealthy Beverly Hills, it could happen anywhere else in America. The environmental organization she worked for was based in an upscale area of the East Bay. And it had been started due to the alarming use of cancer causing pesticides in its preschools!

“Industry pundits are still trying to spin it as if Erin Brockovich was some sort of white trash out for money,” joked Caryssa one day at a local town meeting with the Environmental Services team.

“And who cares if she did net tons of money from the ordeal! She should have, for such a great cause!” responded a green team co-volunteer. “What makes people think anyone has a right to make money off toxic chemicals, which are hurting rather than helping society? Yet if someone does something positive for society, it’s looked at as hurting profits in some industry…and they are accused of being only in it for the money! Talk about crazy making!”

The following weekend, Caryssa and eleven of her girlfriends went to wine country for a spa day. When the topic of what she wanted to do for work came up and she shared her dream, one of them said “What do you mean you want to do something to make this a better world for your child. How could Tyler possibly have a better world? He lives in a beautiful house with a killer view, in the most amazing community of people anyone can ask for, skis in Tahoe flies back and forth across the continent twice a year, goes on trips galore, has fabulous involved parents.”

“It’s not his life now, or mine I am talking about. I could not be happier! It’s the future of our kids I’m talking about!” Caryssa responded. “You don’t understand as you don’t have kids!”

They were having mud baths while chatting, and her friend gave her a shoulder massage.

“You care way too much, Caryssa. Nobody cares as much as you do. But you need to care about yourself more.”

As she soaked, Caryssa realized her reason for not wanting to continue with MFS ran deeper than pay and not learning new-fangled digital marketing skills. Although the increase in awareness was an eye opener, and she loved helping communities, she was growing weary of seeing things with reality colored glasses all the time. Oh to see things through deceptive rose-colored glasses again!

At times she felt so disheartened by the truth as if someone had thrown darts at her balloon. She was sickened and saddened by the way her country’s leaders were handling things. Equally by how otherwise good people remained in deep denial about it all.

She had been insanely driven in her corporate days. But her ambition then was to make a lot of money and serve the corporate infrastructure. Her ambition now seemed so much higher. So much more balanced with spiritual and social awareness. She had thrown away all of her masks and put on her soul. But she needed a balance, and her friends were right. She needed to learn to take care of herself as well.

If I can’t change the world, she resolved, sinking deeper into the soothing mud bath, I want to at least better society in some small way, engage in something governed by ethics. But I also want to get paid for saving the world!

And I need to do it in a way that also nurtures me. I need to make some time for Caryssa.

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