Masks of Morality

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Chapter 4

Aside from all her community volunteering, Caryssa had been writing for an online magazine—Serenity Media. So far she had published twelve of her articles on various political, environmental, and social issues. Each article had taken weeks of research, interviewing people, and writing/editing/rewriting until spit-shined to make it ready for the digital publishing world.

The more she researched and wrote, the more radically her views of the current state of society changed. She became obsessed with the need to get the truth out there to contradict what was being presented in the media. Presented or hidden. She brought the same intensity to this work that she had to her work in the technical world.

That evening the busy day was behind her, dinner done and kitchen cleaned. Tyler was in bed falling asleep as George read him a final story. She sat at her desk to write yet another article. She opened her laptop. Can the click of a mouse help change the world?

Maybe not, but a quote from Alan Keyes in The Hundredth Monkey kept her going: “All it takes to bring about change is a change in the consciousness of a certain number of people, then it is adopted by everyone as the norm.”

The problem with trying to change the world, she mused, is that anything less is certain to feel like a disappointment. And even though she might be doing more for society than when she made big bucks pushing more technology than the world can conceivably handle, that’s not how the world saw it. She constantly got the message that unless she was making money and driving the competitive wheel for the manic race to nowhere, she was doing nothing. Not working.

It always struck Caryssa as ironic when people who witnessed her once workaholic ways would ask, “So what do you do with yourself during your days now?” As if she sat around eating bonbons. She should respond: “Oh, I have a lot of important things to do, like taking the knots out of my old telephone cords.”

Some kids lose their way, with parents succumbing to the economic and political decisions on the backs of their children. They may miss seeing what is transpiring in their world while so busy driving that competitive wheel to Lalaland, manipulated by unbridled capitalism.

“Whoa,” Caryssa whispered. “Have I gone soft? Me, the former cut-throat high technology marketer? Isn’t capitalism what brought us this marvel called the Internet? That super-information highway! All those cool technology gadgets zoning kids out today! It’s helping me make a little money right now. Not much, but every penny counts.”

During her corporate career, Caryssa had clawed and kicked her way up the ladder to a senior level. That world lay far behind her now, faded in the distance. That was another life in another world, having nothing to do with the woman sitting here in her home office. She’s now doing a different type of work, for different reasons.

She had been a cutting-edge analyst in the computer internetworking world. Now she was analyzing everything else she could, anything that might affect the future of our kids. Was she developing analysis paralysis, or did parenting wake her out of a corporate tunnel vision?

She clicked on a link to the first thing she would read for this next article. It will be good to get out of the house and into the city tomorrow. Maybe I’ll gain some fresh perspective. Maybe I’m buried in my cozy bubble and when I meet my former colleagues I’ll get a bigger view of all this.

Early the next afternoon she got on BART for her city adventure. She was excited to get out and spend time in San Francisco, to see old work buddies. She left her house hours before the meeting. She had a pedicure, leisurely roamed Fisherman’s Wharf, munched on chocolates in Ghirardelli Square, window shopped, sipped a latte, saw and smelled the sights. She even bought herself a knock-off Coach purse.

As it turned out, those hours playing tourist was the most enjoyable of the entire excursion. Oh, she loved seeing a few former business colleagues! They met at an elegant restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf, chatting over glazed oysters, risotto, and salmon on crisp bread rounds topped with caviar. They shared plates of fois gras, quail salad, ahi tuna with avocado. Between delicious bites of lobster served with basil and soybeans, sips of top wines the sommelier helped them choose with perfection…it really was fun.

But the conversations seemed a bit jaded. Like something was missing. It was as if they lived in a vacuum. From Caryssa’s point of view anyway, there were big missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of their lives.

Wow. This is where I once was in life. It was great for the space I was in then. But at this age? Now? It seems—empty. Her old friends still had nothing to talk about other than business trips, work, or hanging with all the single people looking for other middle-aged single people.

Listening to them, Caryssa felt centered and grounded. Yet, for a fleeting moment, she also felt the opposite. It was as if she were locked out of the bakery with her nose pressed against the glass, looking in at all the treats she didn’t have access to. Her former colleagues had an ease with each other that she couldn’t match despite her years of working in their shared world. After a while, she found she was only half listening to them. What fun things were Tyler and George doing at home?

Had she become this simple? So easily content with the unpretentious beauty that is her life? Then a young male voice intruded on her reverie: “Why should I pay taxes that support schools, I don’t even have kids!”

After several PTA meetings with talks of yet more budget cuts across our schools—budget cuts to our kids’ futures—hearing this was a sharp reminder of our nation’s poor fiscal priorities. This coming from the guy she saw pull to the curb in a new BMW worth at least fifty or sixty grand!

Caryssa’s internal warning system told her to remain silent, to turn and walk out. She knew she could be overbearing on such subjects and she didn’t want to ruin what had been a good time. She was about to mention she had an early morning getting her child to school and say her goodbyes.

But then she realized her former work pals had tried to draw her into their conversation. This is what she had come into the city for.

After taking several deep and calming meditative breaths and appreciating the beauty all around her—the gorgeously fresh cut flowers in all the vases and vibrant mustard-yellow walls, amazing woodwork and modern, classic décor—Caryssa smiled. She looked straight into the eyes of Mr. Materialism and asked with composure “So Sean. What do you like to do on weekends or when you’re not working?”

“When I’m not working? Well, ah, I try to do this…” he gestured towards the group. “I come into the city and hang with friends, maybe go mountain biking.”

“Oh, that’s great! Mountain biking is so thrilling! Where do you usually go?” Caryssa asked, maintaining the conversation. She could see Sean was a sincere person. Just young and self-absorbed with no care in the world for the next generation. As she had once been.

“Well, I haven’t had the chance to go in a while, but I like Saratoga Gap,” Sean took a sip of his Martini.

Caryssa nodded to the waiter as he brought a bottle of red wine around the table. “I’ve mountain biked there. It’s beautiful, nature at its best. Do you ski? I find mountain bikers tend to love skiing too, we outdoor mountaineer types.”

“Yes, I get to Tahoe when I can. It’s hard as I work so late and am so exhausted by Friday I don’t have the energy to pack my shit and go!”

“I understand exactly where you’re coming from … been there, done that when I was at Unabridged Networks. What do you do for the company that keeps you so busy?”

At this Sean puffed out his chest with pride, a sparkle in his blue eyes. “I just got promoted to Worldwide Channel Manager for the Federal Division, working with channel accounts across the globe such as the U.S. Army, Navy, Homeland Security—”

“Oh, God”…Caryssa interrupted his spiel. In other words,…he facilitates our globalized tech war machine turning us into a violence-prone police state. Now how am I going to keep my big mouth shut?

She couldn’t help it, letting her knowledge escape into the cognitive dissonance of the moment, “Sean, I’ve done a lot of research on this, discovering that we never needed Homeland Security, let alone our massive military—”

"What! And just lay over like cowards letting us get attacked by the terrorists?” Sean had a look of incredulous shock on his face.

“That’s exactly what falling for the ruse of needing to build up a surveillance-state, war economy is enabling us to do! We lay over like cowards, letting millions of our youth get marched into battlefields for booty!” Caryssa’s voice remained low and calm. Seans, however, ascended to a shriek:

“That’s crazy!”

“Shhh...not crazy, just a conscious awareness. THINK Sean, what’s Homeland Security good for beyond a means for a shadow government to suppress homeland dissent?”

“Man, you sound like a conspiracy theorist.” Despite the words escaping his mouth, Caryssa could see the cogs turning in his mind, reflected through his eyes. He was rethinking the marketing spins he’s been conditioned to believe.

“I think you know otherwise, Sean.” Caryssa got his attention as he looked directly into her eyes with a look of surrender. “Seriously, the word ‘terrorist’ itself has been buried in the rubble of needless fear and warmongering. What’sis Homeland Security good for, other than stopping our own people from rebelling against the tyrannical rule? If we shut down the wasted $40 billion spent on this agency, we would be no less safe.”

Sean said nothing, just lifted his martini and sucked down a huge sip. He waited as if to hear more.

The conversation reminded Caryssa how the philosophy of violence and a paranoid need for so much security is woven into the fabric of our society. Included are these networking systems connecting one thousand plus military bases across the globe. So deeply sewn into our financial, political, and moral core, it directly contributes to social disorder and chaos. Sixty-nine cents of each of our tax dollar funds death and destruction.

While people complain about taxes to support our schools!

She glanced around the restaurant again, breathing in the intriguing scents of garlic, herbs, and spices. Fresh cut flowers and lit candles adorned each table, complementing the classic elegance and décor. A palm tree swayed in the gentle breeze just outside the door.

Caryssa realized she hadn’t addressed his promotion. “Well, congratulations on your promotion! You must have worked hard for that. Not to harp on the topic, but let me ask a personal question if you don’t mind?”

When Sean nodded, she asked “How do you feel about all those pointless military bases? Are you not concerned about the deep origins of imperialism and militarism tearing the U.S. apart today, leading it toward mediocrity and bankruptcy?”

“Well, I think there’s a difference between being pro-war and pro-national defense. The military bases are there. We’ve already invested so much money in them. We need to be strategic. They need to communicate with each other.”

Caryssa almost snorted at his cookie-cutter standard rationale. But then she noticed his nervousness. He needed to believe in this deceiving marketing spin to stay gainfully employed. But her concern for our communities and families took precedence…so she plunged on.

“You’re contradicting yourself! Come on, you are a bright business man, you know that the only real reason the USA stays locked into the same insane thing over and over and expecting a different result is our immoral political system itself. Our acts of meddling in everyone’s affairs around the world wherever ‘freedom and democracy’ are claimed to be missing.”

Sean flushed and began stuttering. “I know…I know. But…but I feel like I’m pegged doing Fed contracts because I bring in so much business. It’s…it’s complicated.” He threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “My company is now automating another Navy terminal, and I am the lead. That project is keeping a roof over my head. You see…we bought this high tech startup from Israel and—”

“And Israel has a huge presence on Wall Street, and is now Silicon Valley’s biggest competitor!” Caryssa interjected.

“I….I see the connection but it’s…it’s…oh! It’s too big for this little fish here to fry,” Sean muttered, turning away to signal to the waiter that he was ready for a second martini. “I’m only one person.”

“If each of us little fish tried to fry the big fish, we could see positive change, Sean!” Caryssa felt bad she had brought this up. She hadn’t meant to hurt this guy. But…but…and here was the rub. Here was what drove her. She knew we mustn’t remain complacent as a society. For our kids’ sakes.

The waiter arrived at the table to take Sean’s order and ask if anyone would like anything else added to the immense spread of fine foods already served. Sean took that opportunity to play host for a moment, make suggestions, ask questions, and poll the others.

Caryssa was not ready to let the subject go. “Look, Sean, I too felt pegged at one point in high tech corporate America. I wanted to stop doing the hardcore competitive stuff I loved so dearly because after a while it became a grind. I was driving so much revenue, management froze me on my chess square. I had no options. But you’re young and smart, and they need you. Try to get past it, any way you can! Why should we have those barbaric training bases? We could be building schools, hospitals, and healthy infrastructure!” Not oil pipelines or a future Berlin-like wall she wanted to add.

Caryssa’s heart was beating so hard she thought her chest might burst and bounce out the doorway, landing on the palm tree. Sean’s only guilt was trying to survive unbridled capitalism while following the unthinking masses standing for our violence-for-profit economy.

The waiter came back with Sean’s martini. He took a gulp before responding. “Phew! That’s a lot to take in, Caryssa. And maybe more than I can handle. This is why I don’t want to bring children into this fucked up world! But do you think political policy will change? I don’t. Guns and war are far too deeply woven into the American financial identity. From folk hero frontiersman Davy Crockett to vigilante Dirty Harry. I wish…I wish I could change my career path overnight, but the truth is, I don’t know if there’s a position open for me on a new path.”

“Oh, show me the money!” laughed Caryssa, as she slapped her financial share for enjoying fancy finger foods and wine on the table. “How many more mass shootings do we need to endure before people see we need cultural change? How many times do we need to see our twisted propaganda claim the shooter was ‘radicalized’? Turns out Sean, the world is not so fucked up, it’s a beautiful place if we let it be. Our military is radicalized!"

So deeply sewn into the business fabric of our society is this violence…right to this successful, educated man in his late twenties working the same sexy Silicon Valley circuit Caryssa had. And yet how hard was it to get school budgets passed that paid for disaster preparedness and safety mechanisms?

Even at Tyler’s top-rated school, the ratio was one paid yard duty worker to hundreds of kids during recess. They were begging for parent volunteers. Caryssa did more than her share of school volunteering—Board of Directors, Library Duty, Computer Duty, School Site Council, driving to field trips, Book Fair Chairperson, PE volunteer, working at classroom parties, donating monthly to the PTA budget to cover costs. She even helped kick-start a nonprofit foundation to raise money for the school, including pulling money directly from parental pockets.

Then there was the myriad of non-school-related sports stuff such as coaching kids’ tennis and being team business manager for baseball. The list went on and on. So why was she feeling guilty?

“I…believe me I would rather work in a different space than the Federal division with this technology…but you know, these days you gotta go where the jobs are. I need to pay my rent,” Sean sighed again. “The Pentagon is now trying to snuggle up with Silicon Valley—but at least the tech folks I work with are wary of them.”

She felt sorry for him, despite his big fat paycheck, his BMW, and his luxury apartment in the city. She felt sorry for him and others with no choice but to go with the flow. They seemed to believe there was no way out—they could either make money from connections to our perpetual war games or potentially walk the streets starving. Corporate Hunger Games.

She excused herself and went to the ladies room, then came back out and chatted while enjoying more delicious glazed oysters. But the conversations were still focused so much on shop talk that she grew bored.

A guy who worked as a senior competitive analyst with her at Unabridged Networks sat next to her. “Hey Caryssa, overheard you talking to our top Fed guy, Sean. Are you really the Caryssa we knew and loved in Silicon Valley? Or have you been abducted by aliens and replaced by a super robot?”

Caryssa pushed the platter of ice, now empty of oysters, away from her, and pulled her white wine closer. She pointed the tiny fork at him “I’ll accept the ‘knew and loved’ part as a compliment, thanks, John. But really…as if thinking of dropping twenty-six thousand bombs a year on poor countries for their resources as a criminal act is spacy? Nothing alien or far-out about that.”

“Next you’ll be telling us that ET’s are trying to create peace on Earth by stopping America from testing nukes.” John placed the empty ice platter back on the mini raw bar for the waiter.

“Well, we do have an Apollo astronaut obsessed with aliens not tolerating military violence on earth or in space.” She wondered if extraterrestrial intelligence may be more credible than the bloated top-secret world of ‘intelligence’ we created since 9/11. “All that nuke testing is how liberty dies…with thunderous bass and a techno beat!” she blurted out for good measure.

John threw his arms up in wonder, then headed towards the men’s room.

The guy on the piano was now singing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” The melancholy words floated through the restaurant. She glanced around at the scene and saw an uncanny connection with the conversation, right down to Davy in the perpetual Navy and the waitress practicing her politics. Perhaps all the business people were also stoned.

She finally said her goodbyes to the group. On her walk towards the BART station, she felt grateful the sun was setting so late and stopped to capture a photo with the sun’s glow stretching across the bay. She walked again, briskly, to capture another sunset angle before the sun hid behind the bridge. Smiling into the sunset, in her happy place, her Kate Spade sunglasses flipped onto her head, she rushed towards home to see her wonderful child and hubby.

Caryssa hopped onto the BART train and situated herself in a cozy corner. The car was nearly empty at this hour of the night. She could sit back, read the book she had stuffed into her new purse, and veg out.

She did enjoy getting insight into the corporate world she had once lived in but realized now why she felt so … invisible. None of them had bothered to ask her about her child, her life. Was being a mom not worthy of discussion?

Even though she didn’t want to admit it, Caryssa had come to gauge people’s character by how much they realize her child is the most important aspect of her life. And she had come to believe it’s not a bad measure of friendship.

That night, on her way home from the city, Caryssa couldn’t wait to see what amazing new mission her little boy may have built with his Legos or Lincoln Logs with his daddy. She was so excited!

“You made the choice to leave your corporate career.” Samantha Owens’s voice faded in and out with the spotty cell reception through the BART tunnel. Caryssa had called her on the way back from the city. “That’s likely why you felt a bit of disconnect with your old corporate cronies.”

“Yeah, but I felt inadequate around them,” Caryssa admitted.

“But you made the choice to be that kind of mother. Nobody forced you! Lots of other women don’t choose that path!”

“Oh sure…We’ve had a women’s movement in America. There was Gloria Steinem with her aviator glasses and frosted hair. We had Betty Friedan who wrote ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ Women are powerful. And some can be superwomen, Sam, like you. But not me. I can’t.—”

“Not you, my ass! You are super-volunteer woman and mother of the year!” Sam retorted. “And Gloria Steinem has turned out to be a sexist, ageist, obsolete idiot!”

“Sure, Sam, some women are still working the fast-paced crazy techno circuit as moms, if they have either worked out some elaborate child care or have a husband who shares equally in the drop-offs, pick-ups, soccer practices and all. Perhaps he even lactated to feed the baby!”

Or they are like Linda…a mom of two at the school whose mother-in-law is at pick-up and drop-off five days a week, transports the kids to sports activities, does homework with them every day, volunteers her time at the school weekly.

“The women in our circle of friends who don’t have kids have a different life…with lots of time and energy for an endless field of paid-for work. But some of us forty-something moms have come full circle…we had our powerful careers. We want to be powerful moms!”

“I’m listening” responded Sam. The cell reception was weakening as BART rolled ahead.

“I’m not always there for Tyler,” Caryssa babbled on. “He goes to daycare two days a week…next school year four days a week. He even does some homework himself in daycare. I let him experience discipline or the growing pains of childhood pretty well. But I can’t seem to let go enough yet to go back to a full-time job. He’s still so young!”

“I understand!” intervened Sam. “I would quit my job in a flash if I realized Ben’s needs were not being taken care of. But that’s the sacrifice we older moms are willing to make if we can!”

crackle crackle…The reception went dead as the BART train rolled through a tunnel, so Caryssa ended the call.

Earlier in their friendship, Caryssa and Sam would never even have had this discussion. They had each waited a long time to have their kids. These women seem to dream up recipes, ideas for a better world. Then, sometimes lose them on the way to the grocery store, baseball practice, volunteering in a school or while running a bath for the kids. They lost them on the way to greasing the path for their children to be successful in life.

It was a ripple effect, bringing a child into the world later in life, Caryssa realized. She didn’t only care about herself now. She cared a lot more about the world her son lives in.

Caryssa considered the pros and cons of waiting to have a child. They owned their beautiful house, had money in the bank, held no credit card debt, and were able to have one parent devoted to their child full time. But she knew they could only do that because she had learned to be frugal. Her family finances were in many ways akin to a single mom. One moderate income taking care of three people. With her losing so much in the stock market and not being able to save as much as she'd like to have with her past spending sprees, they were far from rich.

Her bigger worry is that because they were older, either George or she could leave Tyler's world when he still needed their guidance. These thoughts haunted her. This time she shook her head and looked out the BART car window to chase away the fear of not being there for Tyler one day. She was here today, she reminded herself as the train stopped at her Del Norte station. We have today.

Caryssa pulled into her driveway two hours earlier than expected. After compiling a to-do list, she went about getting all Tyler’s things ready for school the next day. Making sure his ducks were in a row to minimize the hassle of getting out the door on time and hence to her doctor’s appointment on time. And then to do errands, if possible, before that 11:40 pick up from school and time for lunch and homework.

She rolled out of bed the next morning and shuffled into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. It should be simple, getting the kid off to school. She’d prepared everything the night before. It should all go pretty smoothly. Wake him, dress him, feed him, give him a daily vitamin, get teeth brushed, face and hands washed, make sure sunscreen is applied, and transport him to that institute of learning.

It would be simple if the mere act of waking Tyler up was not akin to climbing Mount Everest. Especially the cold reception she got this morning, waking him from that perfect dream about some amazing Lego mission.

Tyler had burrowed more deeply beneath the covers each time she tried to rouse him out of bed, proving he could be as stubborn as his mother. Finally, she had attempted the tickle monster and jump onto mommy’s aching forty-eight-year-old back routine. He started flipping and turning more ably than a greased octopus as she fought to wrest the covers from him.

Then, even though he had been dressing by himself for at least two years, on this particular school morning the outfit Mommy picked out was all wrong. “Ok Tyler, go ahead and pick out your own outfit.” Ten minutes later, it was down to Mom’s threatening gestures that convinced him it might be prudent to postpone the fight over outfits to the next morning, and get dressed properly.

Is there a fashion contest thing going on as early as the kindergarten days? “Mom, why can’t I wear ripped jeans to school? My friends do!” Tyler moaned. “It’s the in thing!”

Next there was the task of getting her child to the table for breakfast. “I’m not hungry yet Mommy.”

“You need your nourishment to use your brain at school, and we need to leave in ten minutes! Caryssa responded. This morning the act of building a city with Legos looked more enticing to a five-year-old.

It came to a threat of the most diabolical, coldest, heartless and savage punishment: NO SCREEN TIME!

Finally, Caryssa had transported Tyler to school on time, parked in her usual spot, and then hauled him like a pull toy across the yellow crossing to school.

Her pull toy seemed to show a bit of resistance today, as if he needed his five-year-old battery changed, or had rusted wheels. Or was it that Caryssa, in the frantic pace of trying to get Tyler to school without needing a tardy slip, was walking a bit too fast for his legs to keep up?

Once she had finally dropped him off, a wave of calm washed over her. It was Mission Impossible accomplished.

Until tomorrow.

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