Masks of Morality

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Chapter 1- 2008

If she had recognized what she sees now, would she have been so gung-ho to make it to the top?

Caryssa asked George “Would I have participated at all?”

“You are getting obsessed like a demon again, let it go already.” George was staring robotically at the TV screen.

“Oh come on! I saw firsthand while working Boston’s tech corridor and Silicon Valley how we sold our high tech souls to Israel and beyond! It’s all about the money monster!” She glanced out her living room window.

The blood-red sun streaked beams of orange across the sky, stretching from The City past Mount Tamalpais. The rays aligned over Alcatraz and combined with the reflection off the water, creating that quintessential Bay Area soft mystical twilight.

A fast-approaching fog bank drifted across the Golden Gate Bridge, like fingers skipping over the water. The sun, hanging like a ball below a palm tree in the distance, was swallowed whole by fog, which moved fast, faster, and faster, as if alive.

Caryssa Flynn stood at her living room window. Within minutes, her entire view became a blanket of fog quickly moving toward the hills where she lived. Caryssa’s life seemed to have moved in a matching bizarre and swift fashion.

She had gone from cut-throat high tech marketing to frenetically devoted motherhood, from a workaholic gregarious party girl to a happy homebody. And home had clearly evolved to be California.

The San Francisco Bay Area with its cultural diversity and open, progressive yet pragmatic minds. The Bay Area's rolling hills and relaxed attitudes, and after the fog recedes, its ever-present golden sunlight. The fresh air, like the flavor of fresh green beans picked from the garden, was always infused with eucalyptus and redwoods.

“You’ve been reading too many sci-fi’s, dear." George’s voice was soft and flowed to her ears, calming her spirits. She knew he shared her perspective on all this and was just razzing her.

She laughed, throwing her arms up into the air. “Those ‘sci-fi’s’ are based on today’s political reality! Now, a combo of robots and software are taking over my own marketing profession! How could I have foreseen this while choosing to stay home to raise my kid?”

Sipping a cup of Bengal Spice tea, waiting for the oven to signal it was preheated so she could slip some wild-caught salmon in to bake, the realization that she had been living on the west coast for over fourteen years almost shocked her.

Funny, how one promotion can change a person’s life. Computer technology was at the foundation of her move. Ironically, the same technology now threatened to destroy her prospects for work after having taken time off to raise Tyler.

The tech dinosaur syndrome was slowly kicking in. And her recent attempts to land a worthwhile job in her field indicated she just might be becoming a Brontosaurus.

George’s eyes never left the TV screen, each hand working a remote “I’m sure glad for the Internet. I mean…after all, Internet technology brought you to the west coast, we never would have met without it!”

Visions of taking brutal measures to get that next promotion during her peak career days flashed before Caryssa’s eyes. Silicon Valley! What can she say? It’s deep in her heart. Yet she has learned so much since then.

“Yup, true, but what a surprise for me to learn the Internet itself had been pioneered by certain corporate, government and academic agencies collaborating to further our nation’s techno-military madness!” It was her ber biggest fear in life.

She sighed as the oven timer dinged and she heard Tyler come in the back door laughing after pre-dinner soccer practice. What an amusing twist for a woman who now, at forty-eight, couldn't seem to get back to her professional career, with her deep devotion to her son, so rich and rewarding.

“Don’t blame the Internet! The life-altering event for you came with motherhood in your forties. You were obsessed with changing the world!” George’s focus switched from TV screen to Caryssa’s eyes.

“Blame the Intern…You just don’t get it! My beloved career in that high paying high tech world may have helped carve a path to endless war!” Caryssa set her cup on the kitchen island and reached for the tray of salmon. “Why didn’t anybody warn me?” George remained silent.

“What’s that, Mom?” Tyler asked from behind a laptop, now glued to his headset and some digital Avatars. “Were you talking to me?”

“See that! I helped bring this digital maze to yours truly, so your son can zone out in cyberspace! Society is drowning in technology!”

The next morning, after George had left for work and she had dropped Tyler off at school, Caryssa continued her musing, this time over a second cup of coffee. It’s true she found it hard to imagine choosing any job over the opportunity to experience her own child’s hopeful, open soul. Her favorite thing to do now on a Saturday night was to curl up on the couch with her guys, chomp some popcorn with a good family movie. Simple love.

Sitting in her back garden in the morning sun, she gazed over the panoramic view from her home. She could see all the way from downtown Oakland to Mount Tamalpais, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, over the glorious blue-green bay. Spectacular.

She loved the beautiful house she had bought with George. A four bedroom, two bath retro gem tucked in the East San Francisco Bay hills, with its lovely garden and spectacular scenery. All she ever needed to feel centered was to stop and glance out her window or sit in her backyard facing the bay. She loved the feel of the breeze on her face and the smell of the fresh air and flowers.

Caryssa leaned into her pink jasmine on the vine, falling into its immense sweetness, drowning in its bright happiness, listening to her wind chimes singing in the gentle breeze. She needed this so much right now. It was always a mistake to watch the news, and unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to avoid it at the gym. Moments like this were her refuge. Nature kept her more grounded in reality than the news ever could.

Those oppressive images stayed with her. Young soldiers indoctrinated into performing horrific actions. Made worse by her recognition that most of it is the product of collusion between global corporate America and power-hungry politicians.

Honestly, they might as well just make all their headlines read “Breaking News! Dark Corners of Corporate Greed Causing Global Death and Destruction!” That would pretty much cover everything she saw on the news or read in the papers. Repetitive fear-induced reporting.

She shuddered inside. The war-owned mass-media does so much to deceive the public. Her former self would never have believed it. But those eager beaver reporters wear the same deceitful masks of goodness politicians do, their words paid for by the same shady characters within the iron triangle: Congress---Special Interest---Bureaucracy.

She gazed out at her view, so therapeutic. It always kept her from getting too fixated on the evil in political and media culture. The dark evil that would push an innocent immigrant child off the borders of this nation, merely due to being “undocumented.”

How had someone once so self-absorbed and tech-obsessed become so philanthropic, open, and mindful? How had someone once so politically naïve, other than about corporate politics--- become so clear about how our society was being run and for what global purposes?

Caryssa knew the answer. He was now nearly forty-eight inches tall weighing forty-seven pounds. Her boy, her joy, her life. Bringing that beautiful boy into the world later in life had pushed her to develop a social conscience and committed her to do volunteer community work on a weekly basis for more than half a decade.

The paradox was that Caryssa had always put her heart and soul into everything she did. As a technical marketing wizard on the rise before her marriage, she had held nothing back. And that was still true, but now she did it with parenting and volunteer work.

“You can’t do anything half-assed, can you?” her girlfriend Samantha recently commented.

How Caryssa had grown to admire and love her friend. She met Sam and Jim Owens years ago when she had first arrived in California. They were part of her Tahoe ski pal group.

“Got that right girlfriend,” she replied. “But you know, during my career as VP of Marketing for one tech start-up, I remember thinking what the hell am I doing here. I want to start a family! I guess it was a blessing in disguise when they didn’t get their Venture Capital funding.”

“I’ll say. Wasn’t that when you guys went on your amazing European trip and made a beautiful baby in the City of Lights?”

“Oh, yes!” Caryssa had laughed. “That was sheer bliss. The most stressful decisions we had were vin blanc or vin rouge today? This pâté or fromage? A baguette with my café au lait? Shall we stop at Le Couture Café or continue walking? Heaven. Just heaven!”

In the present moment, a reminder beeper went off in Caryssa’s kitchen. She glanced at her watch. Only an hour and a half left and then she had to go pick Tyler up from school and take him to baseball practice.

But really…what had happened to her career? Mommyhood took it over before she had even left it. The last professional marketing position she’d held had been over five years ago, while she was pregnant. She had still been a hot commodity then. They had hired her on the spot right after she got back from Europe.

She had purposely taken the position in a slower-paced industry at a fifty thousand dollar cut in salary, assuming it would be less stressful while she tried to start a family. She asked to work part-time during the last two months of her term, petrified that because she was pregnant at forty-two she could go into pre-term labor. Human Resources said she would need a letter from her doctor confirming what her “hardship” was, and would still be expected to carry a full-time workload.

What a rude awakening.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” a colleague she had befriended snorted when they talked about it over lunch. “Management ought to be utterly ashamed of their lack of empathy for new parents! There should be a law about this!”

Her OB-Gyn choked back disgust when Caryssa told her about the note and the workload her employer expected in her final trimester. “You know, Europe has family-friendly policies, unlike here in the States. For one thing, stay-at-home parents are paid for taking care of their children. It’s recognized as having a high level of cultural and economic value to society.”

“What!! They’re paid for staying home with their kids?!” Caryssa slipped her feet into the stirrups and scooched forward so her doctor could examine her.

“Yes,” Dr. Madell responded. “It may only be a small stipend, some two to three hundred dollars or so a month. But it’s something! Good full-time parents raise their kids to be happy, well-adjusted citizens rather than the potentially lost souls that can result from lack of parental involvement. That’s a huge accomplishment, and so beneficial to society. I’ve read that if a stay-at-home parent were compensated for all they do—acting as the kids’ chauffeur to and from school, personal cooks, counselors, tutors, activity planners, soccer coaches and so on—they would make at least three hundred fifty to five hundred thousand a year?”

“Really!” Caryssa’s eyes widened.

“Indeed,” Dr. Madell removed her gloves and washed her hands. “More than I make!”

Now, in the past five years since giving birth, Caryssa had not taken a job outside the home. Especially after the introduction she’d had to a system clearly failing one of its most critical resources—mothers. So often she would dress for an interview, wow them, be invited back for more interviews, and get an offer, only to discover the company was not willing to provide the flexibility she needed to remain active in her son’s life.

She found herself constantly torn between the pull to contribute to Tyler’s future financially and wanting to be there for him during these early years. She wanted to live in the moment, soak in every milestone of her precious child.

As a mom, Caryssa wanted to make the most of it while her son was young and still wanted to hug her and sit on her knee and snuggle or when he was an early teen, going through all those adolescent pains. She knew he needed her and would need her for some time to come.

At the same time, she’d go over their investments, what it cost to live even modestly in the Bay Area. What about when Tyler was ready for college? Costs were rising astronomically year by year. How would she and George be able to afford college tuition if she hadn’t been working right along with him during Tyler’s younger years? Why did she give up her six-figure income of the 90’s?

But that was then, this is now. It came down to what seemed like untenable options. She could always sell her house if she had to…or her soul.

Caryssa took several deep cleansing breaths of the eucalyptus- and jasmine-scented air. And then she stretched out for her daily jog.

While jogging, she passed by a neighbor who lived on the private golf course on her street. She was working in her garden. The house would undoubtedly sell for at least two or three million.

“Wow, what an incredible house and garden you have!” Caryssa called out to her in passing. She was happy, her blond ponytail waving in the California sunshine as her feet moved rhythmically to Sheryl Crow.

“Thank you,” her neighbor replied. “I seem to have more time on my hands these days to pour into my yard work.”

Caryssa began jogging in place. “Well, you must have a landscaper. I mean, you don’t do all this yourself do you?” The yard had at least thirty different types of exotic flowers, succulents, and palms, plus waterfalls, rocks, and bird baths.

“Oh, by all means, yes, we have someone do this.” The neighbor swept her arm in an arc to reflect the impressive array of horticulture. “But I do regular weeding in between.”

Caryssa stopped jogging in place, just stood there. She found herself in the moment. The sun on her face felt good. And talking with this woman, mysteriously profound. She had that feeling she gets when she is going to find herself inspired or guided by a loving unseen hand.

“You are an inspiration to us all!” Caryssa’s eyes gazed over the vast garden. “I should make more time to do my gardening as a stay-at-home mom. But I get so busy with playdates, volunteer work at my son’s school and sports teams, supervising homework, then dinner, bath, reading, getting the kid to bed…not to mention cooking, cleaning, shopping, bills….”

She trailed off for a moment, aware that her neighbor was listening intently to her and nodding, her eyes full of empathy. “You know…the day just…gets away from me...Gosh, I work longer hours now than I did as a marketing professional in Silicon Valley!”

“How old are your children?” the perfect gardener with the perfect house asked.

“Oh, I have just one. He’s five, in kindergarten.”

“Ah…that’s a fun age. And lots of work. My name is Alexandra Myers, by the way.”

After Caryssa introduced herself, Alexandra put aside the spade and looked straight into her eyes. “Actually, you are the one who is an inspiration to us all.” Alexandra fretfully lifted the spade again. “All this?” she gestured behind her at her magnificent property. “All this is ultimately just a garden and a house. Material objects come and go. So does wealth. Trust me on that. You are the one making the most meaningful investment anyone could possibly make in a lifetime.”

Alexandra paused for a moment looking at her feet. When she spoke again her voice was soft. “If I could do the crucial parenting years over again, I’d do things so differently.” She gestured again at her mini-mansion. “This is what I have to show for all my hard work. A piece of property. We have several pieces of property for that matter.”

She turned her gaze back to Caryssa. “Before I tell you what I’m about to tell you, I want you to know I realize there are cases where kids with devoted parents can still go astray. But…I believe that the chances are far less likely for that to happen with parents who take the time—I mean really take the time—to focus on their children, pay attention to their lives.”

Caryssa nodded. She was all ears.

“My son is nineteen now,” Alexandra continued. “And he’s in rehab. Oh…we thought we were doing everything right. He was sporty and ambitious, accepted into Stanford and Harvard before he was done with his senior year of high school. Really shined in soccer and baseball. He was well-liked, outgoing.” She paused.

“The first thing that happened was he got burnt out on sports, didn’t want to play anymore. He injured his arm pitching ball. Our family doctor prescribed painkillers. OxyContin. He was seventeen. At first, he was fine. He just took it for pain. But you know how these things can go. Even a well-adjusted seventeen-year-old isn’t a match for a drug like that. We were both so busy with work. We just…you know…didn’t…notice. And then? Then it was too late. The drug had him.”

Caryssa’s heart went out to this mother who was sharing her deepest pain. She reached out and laid her hand on Alexandra’s shoulder, found her gentle voice. “But it sounds like you were good parents. You gave him the best of everything.”

“We gave him everything but the most critical thing a parent can give their child.” Alexandra turned away to gather her composure, pulling a weed from a beautiful bird of paradise in full bloom. She whispered the next word softly. “Time.”

After a few moments of silence, she straightened her shoulders, turned back to Caryssa more composed, and continued. “You see, adolescence is a lot like the toddler years. Remember when you were right there when your child learned to walk? He’d lose his balance and you’d be there to catch him and steady him so he could keep going? And if you didn’t get to him in time sometimes he’d find a table or chair leg to steady himself with?”

Caryssa’s eyes filled up with tears, her hands were shaking.

“Well, the same thing happens with teens. Teens need their parents’ attention and guidance during their time of exploration. Without it, they might find something else to hold onto, just like when they were toddlers. The difference is that teens think they know everything and they feel invulnerable. And they are at the age of experimentation. So what they find to hold onto might not be good for them.”

Caryssa just nodded again, sensing this woman needed to talk.

“Oh…there were plenty of times Jake came to us to talk, but our response was always ‘not now, we’re in the middle of a huge case.’ You see…we own a legal firm together, prosecuting attorneys for thirty years. When Jake was born we truly intended to put him first. But somewhere along the way, we got caught in the momentum of our own success. We forgot that the most important tool to help our child grow is simply listening. We grew our wealth. But we failed our child.”

Alexandra’s quivering smile was accompanied by a tear slowly making its way down her cheek.

“Everything seemed fine. He had lots of friends, although I never took the time to get to know them. The boom fell when he got early admission to Harvard. He flew east to spend the summer getting acquainted with the area and participating in summer orientation programs. I guess he was still using OxyContin then. He had an active prescription for his shoulder. But some of the kids he met on campus introduced him to cocaine and heroin. That was it.

“He came back to see us before the semester started so we could have a big party with family and friends for him, and he was a stranger. We barely recognized him as the happy kid who had waved to us from the security line when we saw him off. He was hostile and angry. He blamed us for everything. He even said he hated how we made a living, and we had a lot to answer for. We were part of the problem, not the solution. He ended by claiming our law business helped America to put more people in prison than any other nation in the world!”

Caryssa kept her agreement with Jake regarding the American for-profit prison system to herself. Since prisons had been privatized, it had become “good business” to put innocent kids in cages for normal things like trying pot. Not to mention that the vastly higher proportion of prisoners were young African American males, a source of slave labor for multinational corporations—where the inmates worked long hours for pennies an hour to make many of the consumer goods Americans bought every day without ever questioning where they came from.

Normally outspoken about such things, Caryssa bit her tongue. Hasn’t this woman with the home that put House & Garden to shame been through enough tragedy? No need to fan the flames and give her more to beat herself about. She glanced at her watch. T-ball practice would start in half an hour. She had to get Tyler after jogging home. She wanted to stop and smell the roses, pick wildflowers along the way to place in her lovely kitchen.

Sensing Caryssa’s shift in attention, Alexandra said “Oh, why am I telling you all this? Just keep on doing what you’re doing, dear…and don’t stop when he is a teenager. That’s when they need you to listen, talk, know who their friends are, what they’re doing on the Internet, where they are—”

“Thanks for all the advice Alexandra!” Caryssa chimed in as she turned back down the hill towards her house. “I’m sure once your son gets out of rehab he will get right back on track.”

Alexandra’s reply stopped Caryssa dead in her tracks.

“No dear, I’m afraid not. You see, using those drugs even once can cause nerve damage. They’re running more tests. We’re hoping and praying for the best, but the bottom line is, he may never be the same.”

Caryssa found herself crying uncontrollably as she finished her run. God. Life was just so fragile. Anything could happen.

She circled back to the comfort and beauty of her own garden, and stretched out her runner’s calves. Then grabbed the coffee cup she left out, bringing it into the house before leaving to pick up her son. She heard Alexandra’s message echoing in her heart.

Take the time, not just on weekends, to focus on your child, to pay attention to his life.”

That evening preparing supper, Caryssa remembered another moment, this one at Tyler’s science fair. She had glanced at a mouse pad that read “100 years from now…it will not matter what your bank account was, what sort of house you live in, or what kind of car you drive. But the world may be a much better place because you were important in the life of a child.” Like her neighbor with the perfect house and garden, that mouse pad had sent a deep and abiding message to her soul.

Caryssa’s thoughts came back to cooking and Tyler. “Off the computer now Tyler, and please wash your hands for dinner!”

And here was another irony for her to consider as she washed green beans in the sink and placed them in the colander to drain. For someone with a fast-track career history in computer technology helping to shape today’s digital revolution, Caryssa had developed a contradictory attitude about what the digital age imposes on kids.

She once had the industry hard-wired into her circuits, enthusiastically absorbed into the wired world of Silicon Valley. Now, her focus was on having fewer electronics. Too much technology. The violent video games alarmed her the most. First-response shooter games had been developed by the military to desensitize people to killing. Now they were being sold to kids, and the end result was the same.

Today’s tech-savvy generation was being steered away from the roots of humankind. They were continuously bombarded with stimuli outside of human companionship. Texting rather than talking. Facebooking rather than face talking. Out of touch with reality, obsessed with virtual reality. The young creating their own virtual habitat rather than playing in the woods.

Technology was advancing so fast and was such an integral part of our world. What would it be like when Tyler’s a teen? It struck Caryssa as bittersweet, how she had so eagerly come to California to help bring this digital economy to the world. Now, she saw how the internet can hurt kids. She worries about its effect on her own son.

Tyler, at age five, simply turns the computer on, types in his chosen address, and starts playing. At least at this point, it’s all non-violent, educational websites. But even this is brought on by our evolving digital craze. Our unhealthy reliance on so much technology ultimately gives technology control of our lives. Where will it lead? Where will it end?

Technology, once the key to her cut-throat drive for success, was now her way of disciplining her son. “I mean it, Tyler, off the computer now or no computer time for a week. If I have to count to three…one, two…!”

“But it’s educational Mom! It’s and! It’s FunBrain!”

Focused now in her kitchen, Caryssa laid out Tyler’s turkey corn dog, fresh raw green beans, pasta, and milk, all organic. Her motivation for having shifted from self-regarding to self-sacrificing came waltzing into the kitchen.

“Mmm smells like my favorite, corn dog!” he exclaimed.

Caryssa turned to the recipe for the dinner she had chosen for George and herself—prawns in garlic butter over pasta, with a pesche alla crema.

She poured herself a glass of Merlot. George was the chef in the family, and she did not share his gift though she loved benefiting from it. Whenever he cooked it was a taste sensation worthy of a five-star restaurant. He would be expecting her usual not-so-spectacular dinner menu. But tonight she would surprise him with something special. Her cooking class was paying off.

As the smell of sautéing garlic and onion filled her senses, Caryssa glanced out her kitchen to the view. The sun had set, but a dramatic orange beam stretched across the sky and Golden Gate Bridge, backlighting the rolling hills and palms.

I live in a sea of wealth, she thought. To her, prosperity was an overall state of well-being. In a society which values commercialism and materialism, appreciation for the simple things in life can fall by the wayside. Caryssa kept a Gratitude Journal on her nightstand to make sure she always remembered to give thanks. Again this evening, as she did every night before bed, she would take a few minutes to record the simple pleasures of her day.

She reflected back on when she had first discovered she was pregnant. Her world would never look the same. As her pregnancy progressed, her thoughts began to coalesce into a clear picture. By the time she held her newborn son in her arms, all her hopes, fears, dreams, and wishes had changed. Now, everything happening in the world took on new meaning.

It simply wasn’t about her anymore.

The astounding beauty surrounding her shined through. She could see a blooming flower, hear the calm of the birds chirping. Children laughing! Yet she could also see the danger her precious child could be exposed to. Dangers far beyond the time she accidentally dropped him in the bathtub as an infant.

Each evening before putting the baby in his crib, she would hold him, rock him gently, and pray God would protect him from harm. Not just him, not just her sweet boy, but all the children. That the world she was noticing would change for the better. Maybe she would have a part to play in that.

One night during that cherished birth year of 2003, she was holding her baby and rocking him to sleep while watching appalling events unfold on TV news. Including the unwarranted U.S. invasion of Iraq, billions wasted to start “homeland security” rather than build schools and infrastructure, the rush of resultant financial turmoil and cynical surveillance. It frightened her to watch these injustices to our own people under mock protection while holding her tiny child. Even back then, she could see they would be major impositions onto future generations; the propagation of an immoral police state war economy.

Then a revelation. Why couldn’t her next job use internet platforms to make a better world?

This memory was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening, and Tyler’s shout of glee and giggles that Daddy was home. He ran to the living room to hide under the coffee table. Well used to this daily routine, George dropped his briefcase on the couch, kissed Caryssa quickly, and then walked through the kitchen and into the living room, calling “Where is he? Where’s my boy? Honey, have you seen Tyler? Is he in the closet? No…not there. Is he in the bedroom? Noooo not there. Hmmmm. Where could he be?!” Then, sounds of little feet pitter-pattering over the hardwood floor, and laughter, and a little voice calling “Oh no! The Daddy Monster found me! Save me, mommy! Save me!”

Caryssa loved these moments, the daddy-son bonding and the strong love her “boys” had for each other. She glanced at her child. A more beautiful child could not possibly exist, so happy and open.

“Wow!” she heard George shout from the kitchen as she was running Tyler’s bath. “What did you do, get gourmet take out?”

She could not suppress a contented laugh. “Nope! I made that with my own sweet hands!”

“It’s amazing!” George mumbled with his mouth full. “How was your day?”

“It was all good.” She told him the details of her lovely yet emotional reflections and experience. “I will never tire of jogging around our gorgeous neighborhood!” Tyler raced by them buck naked with an armful of bath toys, squealing with delight. She turned to her husband. “And how was your day?”

“Oh…productive.” She knew he preferred not to talk much about work when he came home. More carefree laughter erupted from the bathroom as Tyler tossed boats into the bubbles. How easily entertained he is!

Caryssa walked to the bathroom door, glancing in at her son’s joyful splashing. Her gaze turned to George. “Imagine, if our business, political, and religious leaders could see the world through a child’s eyes! We might have peace rather than war, acceptance rather than prejudices, equality rather than greed, purification rather than pollution”

“How do you manage to connect slap-happy bathtime with that? He shook his head. “Hear that, Tyler? While I work saving the bay, your mom is trying to save the world again!”

“You guys are silly”! Tyler dunked underwater again. Then poked his head up smiling at them.

“I know, honey, I know,” Caryssa used a cup to rinse soap out of Tyler’s hair. “Nobody can make me laugh the way your daddy does. Now, heave-ho out of the tub!”

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