Masks of Morality

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Chapter 2

As the weatherman promised, Monday was warm and bright. The playdate group met at their usual spot. Eucalyptus Park was nearly empty, so the spacious playground seemed all the more welcome. Caryssa had grown to love the weekly playdates in this beautiful hillside park with its open grass, lush flowers, and palm trees. Today’s group included “Mr. Mom.”

Stan Gafferty, a balding, blue-eyed forty-year-old former biomedical engineer, was a regular. A father of two sons, Tyler age five and Kieran age three, he had opted to be a stay-at-home father. Although this was an increasingly trendy choice, the others looked at Stan with awe and respect.

“I am amazed at you Stan…to have risen above the stereotype—even prejudice—that one of the most important jobs in the world can only be done by women," Caryssa tossed this declaration out there while plopping down on the park bench.

Stan looked adoringly at his sons, adding playfully. “The most important job in the world, ya say? Ha! Where’s my fat paycheck then? ”

It often seemed to Caryssa his happiness was tinged with frustration at having given up his career. “I’m blessed to be watching my kids grow and learn, though.” He never took his eyes off his boys as they raced to the swing set. “I love seeing them reach milestones where they sometimes change into a completely different person based on new abilities or perceptions of their world.”

The moms nodded. They knew exactly what he was talking about. And they knew the hard choice it had been to forego a career. It was that way for them too.

Stan’s youngest started running towards the street, and he ran faster to grab him. Little Kieran squealed with delight as his dad gave him a piggy-back ride back to the group.

“So what does your wife do for work?” Caryssa couldn’t help notice what a clone Kieran was his dad.

“Stacy works full-time in regulatory affairs for a biopharmaceutical company. We met while at Cal.” Stan let Kieran down from his aching back. “We just had this fear, who would raise our kids? We want to be there for them. And we don’t know how much time I have…so it makes sense for Stacy to be the breadwinner. I mean, after losing a kidney to renal cancer, I am counting my blessings each day with my kids…”

The others just waited…listening.

Stan gazed at the carefree children “The cancer was traced to chemicals I handled on the job---I don’t think from the lab. It was likely during my research days. But I’m not taking that chance again. My kids need me. My Tyler was barely two when it happened, yet he was afraid of seeing his daddy that way. I’ll figure it out when the time comes. But for now, I just…I just want to be there for my two sons as much as I can be.”

Caryssa nodded and laid a supportive hand on Stan’s shoulder. She admired him so much for his decision to immerse himself in the world of nappies and parent-teacher associations, volunteering at his son’s school, sacrificing the ego-buffer of his high-paying job. Taking time out for parenthood. Real-time, not just weekends or the few rushed moments one gets upon returning from the office each night.

It is the bravest, most commendable thing she had ever heard of a man doing. She knew what it took. She almost opened her mouth to tell him so, but then stopped. Stan was a manly man. She didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the others. Maybe she’d find a more private way to let him know at some point.

“That squashes the theory only blue-collar workers are exposed to toxic chemicals,” Caryssa told Stan. “The techies in Silicon Valley can be exposed as well.”

A haze of pink buds softened the stark mid-winter branches of a few trees. Camellias, hellebores, and winter hazel swayed with the gentle breeze and slits of sunshine streamed through a palm. The children’s laughter graced their ears as they ran up and down the hill, slid down slides, and played in the sandbox.

It was mid-February, with temperatures reaching seventy degrees. “The drought situation is nearing what it was in the seventies,” declared Brenda, mother of twins Rebecca and Rowan, one of whom was in Caryssa's Tyler class.

“I heard they may make it illegal to water anything outside—no lawns, pools, or washing cars,” Stan was glancing out at the beautiful bay.

“Hello global warming, welcome to California!” Caryssa gestured with hands famed out to her sides. “Next comes the “Pineapple Express” of extreme rain. We should make mud-sliding a new Olympic sport!”

“Global Warming has been going on forever,” Brenda retorted. “Otherwise, we would still be living in the ice age with critters like wooly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and giant sloths ruling the world. It’s no big deal. It’s nothing new. Just nature’s way. And of course, we wouldn’t have Ice Age movies either—”

“Well…No…” Caryssa interrupted. “Maybe… partly. But it’s happening at a shocking level now, and directly related to over-commercialization and industrialization. Our children may never have a chance to have their own children. Life on Earth for humans could come to an end before then.”

“I’m not a climate change denier, if that’s what you think, Caryss” Brenda seemed a bit put off. “And I know it’s partly caused by humans...but—“

A young man walking through the park barked over his shoulder “Oh man, your elitist liberal attitude is what’s killing my dad’s dry cleaning business.”

Caryssa pictured the traditional dry cleaners building down in the flats spewing toxic perchlorate, and wondered if that was his old man’s business.

The group grumbled their displeasure. Another dogmatic mind rejecting reality. Stan inserted his cancer-surviving self into the argument, “those lethal chemicals in the air are what’s killing people.”

Fuck you!” the young man screamed back as he moved on.

Caryssa pointed as two huge trucks lurched by leaving a trail of exhaust fumes in their wake. “Everyone is harmed by global warming and pollution,” She gestured at the surrounding landscape, “including right here in this gorgeous hillside community by the bay.”

They followed her gesture from the park to the breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue-green bay, and the sailboats out on this glorious day. The smell of flowers drifted into the fresh air. A couple of them nodded as if to say they agreed.

Since it’s all connected, she threw out in the open, “Not too far a stretch, to believe that Earth may become uninhabitable for humans. What with all the destructive technology—we already have a virtual network with drone strikes controlled by some zealot pilot believing he or she is fighting ’terrorism.' And the CIA has faced indictment over bloody video games orchestrated by these zombie drone pilots.”

“You are obsessed with Earth becoming like Venus, aren’t you, Caryssa?” retorted Brenda. “And besides that, what the heck do drone pilots have to do with global warming?”

Caryssa dropped Tyler’s toy truck into the sandbox. “Our drones and war zones have lots to do with the destruction of Earth, do your homework, girlfriend! The American Empire is the most brutal empire in history. As far as I’m concerned, it’s past time to unmask our state-sponsored terrorism!”

“Well, crap, if you’re going to put it that way,” snapped Brenda. “What about the Persian Empire? That was a pretty big one.”

“Yes, I will put it ‘that way.’" Caryssa was grateful the kids were too far away to hear them. “We live in an apocalypse now of financial and political turmoil brought on by a depopulation agenda! It’s a new historical moment with unprecedented technological advances. The Persian Empire merely led the way to future empires after the Middle East had its chance to rule the world. The American Empire, with its support of dictators, torture, preemptive wars, elimination of Habeas Corpus, police killing innocent citizens trying to protect clean water, wasted dollars from our pockets on drone strikes, the virtual elimination of privacy,... The list goes on and on. Not to mention we are the largest drug dealer in the world.”

Brenda ducked into the mini-cooler to grab a bottle of Perrier, muttering under her breath “Trust me, I wish I hadn’t…as usual…you needta get a life—”

“Didn’t The Wizard of Oz teach us anything about bullying?” Stan interrupted, hoping to break the seriousness. “Bombs, bullets, and bullying, oh my!”

Ha, let’s follow the solar brick road before our houses get blown away in a tornado and the wicked witch of the fossil fuel gang lights our straw hats on fire!” Caryssa was loving this.

“But really, how will we tackle global warming while still keeping the lights on and the music playing?” Stan added humorously.

“Well, those on planet Exxon are beyond the pull of reason,” Caryssa joked back. “Want to truly be pro-American? Then recycle, compost, buy local, support green building and sustainable food, volunteer in schools, clean up the environment, care about the link between fair trade and human rights, support peace!”

“Oh, and try using solar lights for Christmas décor rather than showing off houses with a million conventional energy-hogging lights!” added Stan.

“Amen to that!” Brenda said playfully, recovering her sense of humor. “Really…do people need to blow out the electrical grid with a Las Vegas light display? Not to mention that dirty energy powers that grid in the first place!”

Too bad Brenda isn’t totally onboard the planet and peace train. “Ah ha!” Caryssa crowed in triumph, laughing. “So can you admit our drones, clones and war zones do no good?”

“No…I don’t reckon I am connecting your rather derailed dots on that one, Caryss. What do y’all think?” Brenda’s slow mixed southern drawl snuck in.

Caryssa knew from experience that Brenda, a well-educated baby boomer who has lived in the San Francisco Bay for over a decade, only falls into her southern accent now and then. When she is drunk, angry or talking about Bubba who lived next door in Raleigh. Seeing she is not drinking, and Bubba is dead, that means only one thing.

There was a collective silence among them. Caryssa wanted to drop the topic … but had to say one more thing. “It’s seriously unacceptable, Brenda, that we are even in the Persian Gulf using ridiculous flipping false fear tactics of 'Islamic totalitarian empire,' while our empire becomes totalitarian in the process.”

“Well, the truth is,” Stan placed his latte down on the ground near the park bench. “I’m not sure how many realize dirty energy, high tech, and the weaponry aspects of our economic culture are so inextricably linked, and yes, causing increased totalitarian government here through the Pentagon's fallacious panic tactics.”

More silence.

“Oh look! screeched one of the kids, “Is that a UFO in the sky?”

They glanced up at an object flying over the park. “Looks sorta like a Blue Angel, but it’s not that time of year,” observed Brenda.

A hovercraft, looking for future 'tributes,' muttered Caryssa under her breath. A technological divide between rulers and the ruled.

“Maybe little green men who come in peace will beam down and our politicians and greedy CEO’s will claim we need to bomb our ‘alien enemies,’" joked Stan.

Caryssa’s heart ached for her much loved Silicon Valley and its deep connections to the tyranny they mock. More so for their children’s future. She tried to steer the conversation away from the never-ending, media-induced, panic-mongering topic. “Anyway, I try to take proactive measures to reduce my footprint on the electrical grid, improving the intersection between profit, people, and the planet.”

“Hafta admit, Caryss, you have sucha way with words,” Brenda continued. “Girl, ya know you should be writing for some environmental or humanitarian activist group. ‘The intersection between profit, people, and the planet.’ That sounds like a tagline!”

“Well,” said Caryssa, blushing a bit from the unexpected praise, “I was a Marketing VP, remember? In any case, I love my simple display of solar strings during the holidays. We plan to add a string or two each year. Why not look at it as an investment in helping our nation out of its dirty energy crisis?”

The parents watched their kids play. Caryssa let herself be lulled by the calm of the park’s little duck pond and the tiers of soft cloud in the rich blue sky, appreciating the new life on the trees and the warmth of the air. The flowers seemed to be in shock at the unseasonably warm weather. In tune with the earthquakes and tropical hurricanes raging through parts of the East Coast, where once at this time of year the biggest concern had been blizzards. Was this Mother Nature, serving us a wakeup call?

She stopped to admire a tree covered in masses of pale pink-white blossoms and the slant of light from the afternoon sun. She could remember a time when she had not been this way, had not had patience or attention for the world’s fierce beauty. Nature, beautiful calm nature. She heard the kids laughing in the background. A hummingbird danced and pranced nearby on a bougainvillea climbing a trellis. She wanted to pinch herself. How was it she lived in such peace?

Caryssa spoke to the beauty of nature, nearly whispering to her friends, “When did I start seeing the world as a reflection of my child’s future, unable to distance myself from images of violence, starvation, natural and man-made disasters, pollution?”

Brenda was filling a water bottle for one of her twins. "Since his birth perhaps? That’s what happened to me.”

“Really…It’s as if motherhood placed the fate of the world on our shoulders," Caryssa said. "Yet at the same time, I now see the beauty of the world around me so much more clearly! Motherhood has galvanized me in both directions!”

Something happened after she had a child…Caryssa became filled up with her child. Her child filled every void, every hole. There was no overnight miracle, no sudden flash of revelation. It had crept up on her unannounced.

She glanced out at the beautiful view from the park again, watching the sailboats whiz by, making their way through a windy stretch of Alcatraz and the Marin coast.

She couldn’t help but ask, “I love my life and wonder…is that why I am able to take a healthy step back and view the nature of American society and politics in all its ugliness without shrinking away? Is it because I am not ensnared in any personal battle, have no internal demons to chase away? No anger issues?”

“Hmmm. Caryssa you fret about more than anyone I know, what are you getting at?” insisted Brenda.

No! True, I am fearful about the direction my career may take, and concerned college will be too expensive or Tyler won’t get the best, without me contributing to our family's finances. But at least I’m not part of the robotic blind angry audience cheering youth on as they go from violent video games to drone warfare in the military—”

“Mom! I’m thirsty!” Tyler dropped at her feet out of breath and panting. His cheeks were the color of roses, accentuating his sparkling blue-green eyes.

“Well, I don’t do that either. Gotta admit I make it known I’m disgusted with how we always have money for stupid wars, not for education.” Brenda had Rowan in her arms now southern drawl gone. “It’s on purpose, to dumb down youth into such violence.”

“Looks like you kids are having fun!” Caryssa momentarily ignored Brenda, convinced our violent history was about monarch mind control as well, all dressed up in oppressive “honor.” Reaching into her bag of provisions she grabbed Tyler’s Klean Kanteen BPA-free water bottle.

The children ran off, giggling and playing stick monsters up and down the hill dotted with eucalyptus leaves and branches. She watched her precious boy, so carefree and happy. He was clutching one of his stuffed Puffles from the Club Penguin theme to his chest. That little-stuffed smiley face went everywhere with him…and into the washing machine as often as his clothes did.

“Well, sure you tell us that Brenda. But then you show politically inspired posts over Facebook of someone “serving.” It’s as harsh as the heartbreaking displays now, showcasing them like shiny trophies. Past bravado or present, stop glorifying violence! It’s irritating... Give it a rest, Brenda! That's not the 'show not tell' the world needs!”

Argh…Brenda walked away towards the restrooms up the hill.

Caryssa glanced at Stan. “Our cultural lunacy creates worrywarts over things that don’t matter, like gray hair and wrinkles, or imaginary ’enemies’.

Stan merely shrugged his shoulders, switching the topic back to environmentalism. “I saw a comment on a blog post earlier: ’listen to you tree-huggers! You’ve had a drink from the environmentalist Kool-Aid!! Putting the planet before the people!’ That just makes no sense. If we kill the planet, we kill the people. Humans become extinct. Do people not understand that?”

“Tell them to look up the words ‘biodiversity’ or ‘ecosystem,’” Caryssa responded. “Ha! Maybe by the time Mother Earth heats up to become like Mercury or Venus, we will have found intelligent life on another planet. If we are still alive, we could always hop onto a space shuttle and move there!”

In the dingy park ladies room, Brenda was having her own thoughts. God almighty! I get it Caryss! I agree today’s patriotism is out of control, even inhumane!

She stepped out of the stall and glanced at herself in the cracked and blurred park mirror. But why get so weirded out when I honor my dad's participation in WWII? It’s a different era… She resolved to let it go. Caryssa was just too full of consciousness. . . frightened for our children’s future.

Brenda took a deep breath, then hiked back down the hill from the restrooms. “Are we still saving the planet and people? I liked it better when you were talking about all the skiing, hiking and biking, you’ve been doing Caryss! You’ve become the accidental activist.”

“Oh yeah! Caryss went from high tech to hippy!” Stan tossed his youngest son up over his head catching him over and over. His self-proclaimed parkside workout.

“I’ll talk more about all the fluffy stuff again, don’t worry!” Caryssa laughed. “I do see more and more people saying we need to include environmentalism in every aspect of our culture. So there is hope!”

“Some seem suspicious of environmentalism. As if it’s a form of ersatz religion” Brenda again regained her calm. “They see it as a creeping cultural elevation of animals that devalues humans. You know, as if we don’t care about the people who need to make a living in ways that threaten humans, nature, and wildlife.”

Caryssa was still on the idea of life on other planets. “What if there was intelligent life on Venus before its atmosphere became too deadly for its inhabitants? What if that intelligent life developed so much technology based on fossil fuels and explosions, turning its air into the mix of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid we see on Venus now, and causing the extreme greenhouse effect?”

Mhum” Stan uncrossed his arms and leaned inward with a nod of his head. “While we’re at it…how does anyone believe that we are a ‘free nation’? Don’t people read, outside of what they are fed in a newspaper clipping? Public education is not even ‘free’ in America the way it is in other nations!”

Caryssa realized this was not their typical park talk, which usually was all about the kids, jobs and their fun trips. But it is about their kids…future. “I sure am happy our kids all play so well with no fights, so we can talk about politics and the planet.” She collected a few toys from the sandbox and watched as her Tyler disappeared up the hill on a fun adventure.

Stan added “Politics, planet and the PTA. Look how the PTA pays for all the basic supplies for the classrooms. Parent contributions fund pencils, paper, and photocopies—all the essential tools without which no teacher can perform their basic duties! Parents also pay for all field trips, computer lab, garden, and library…yet one military jet falsified in service of freedom costs taxpayers four hundred billion dollars. Jeez. That’s more than enough to educate the entire state of California!”

“They think we are ‘free’ because that’s what they’re being sold by the corporate media. That 'freedom' comes mainly from illusory monsters.” Caryssa loved the shared point of view. “And people are being distracted from real issues. The propagandists make bigger deals out of freakish Lady Gaga in shiny metallic wigs singing the anthem in sports arenas than important events. People are more focused on what color toenails they have, fashion trends, or Reality TV.”

An image of The Hunger Games popped into Caryssa’s mind…is the country as programmed as all that? In the end, she is sure we all want good healthcare, good education, clean air, and water. Peace.

“Peace is not a profitable product, hence those in power don’t want it.” Caryssa was glancing at the swaying palm trees in the park, saying this out of context. Brenda and Stan both shot her a look, then smiled at each other and shrugged. She added, “Power and freedom rarely if ever, come together. Power really subjugates our people—”

“So…you don’t think we ever fought for our freedom, Caryss? Brenda interrupted, ignoring her self-talk in the bathroom.

“No,” was all Caryssa could say. She needs to remind herself of Brenda’s upbringing enduring awkward Civil War reenactments as a child, and the deep conditioning that came with it. A bunch of half-crazed middle-aged men playing pretend glory ignoring the massacre of so many of America’s youth.

Yet, Brenda could be so perceptive. She smoothly added, “Environmental defense should be a huge industry, not what passes for the ‘defense’ we’re sold today!”

Caryssa became energized, springing up from the park bench. “That’s one area I am trying to get into!” I want to do something about sustainability, whether environmental, education, or the food system!”

“That’s great!” Stan had one of his boys on his shoulders now, the other hanging off his arm. “The things worth fighting for are non-violent acts for clean air and water, healthy communities, giving back to our schools, and finding a cure for cancer.”

Caryssa had chills, and then a premonition. Something big was going to happen. We can’t go on this way as a society. Some big statement from the masses. Something about the rigged system of banks being bailed out to pay for needless wars for the 1%, people losing social services, seeing our country being sold to third worlds for oil profits, GMOs, and chemicals that are banned elsewhere but not here, toxic profits, toxic assets…greed. Something is coming to challenge all that.

She could feel something in the air, the rolling boil of a pot about to spill over.

“Oh, dang! Look at the time!” Brenda interjected. “The twins have piano lessons! Before I go, though, on another subject altogether, I meant to tell you guys. I met an amazing woman last week! She’s a mom, two young daughters. She owns a successful art gallery in Sausalito. She travels all over the world for her business. She’s originally from Paris. You guys will love her! Her name is Anna Beauvais, and I have invited her to come to our playdate next week.”

As they watched Brenda and the twins gather their sand toys and rush off, Stan said: “It will be interesting to meet this Anna.”

“Do you know how old her girls are?” Caryssa asked.

“Oh, are you guys talking about Anna? I heard she had one little girl with her, about four years old,” chimed in Laura, another mom with a son in Tyler’s class who just arrived at the park. “From what I heard, she is divorced,” she added.

“Maybe she has family in the area to allow her to travel the world like that,” Stan said. “Although…she lives in Sausalito. She may have money for a full-time nanny.”

“Well, I don’t know about her personal life.” Laura fastened her son Darren’s helmet on for his scooter ride. “But Brenda mentioned she is a truly extraordinary person. And she is bringing some fancy foods for a picnic next Monday, her treat. So that sure is inviting!”

Brenda’s departure signaled it was time to pack the rest of the kids, kites, and Klean Kanteens. Everyone left at once. Another enlightening family day at the park.

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