Masks of Morality

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Chapter 5

Samantha Owens had given birth to her only child at age forty-two. Her husband Jim had been nearly fifty. Caryssa and Samantha shared similar joys, challenges, and fears.

It was a Saturday morning in the Owens home, and the now nearly six-year-old Ben was happily practicing his baseball hits off the back deck, barely missing a few plant vases and windows. Natalie Merchant’s deep, gritty voice filled the living room as Sam dusted.

“Hey sweetie, I think we should get out to the park together and let our son practice his power hits without ruining our house and home,” Jim shouted over the music, with a roll of his eyes. They worked too hard to own this house in the affluent Oakland foothills.

“Yeah, I hearya, honey. But I’ve volunteered to work at Ben’s school today. It’s E-Waste Day, remember? It’s been on the calendar for months,” Sam replied.

“You already worked the bake sale last month, and worked in the garden at the school. Not to mention all the time you spend at work. Don’t you think we need some family time?”

“Yeah, of course. But I volunteered just two hours for E-Waste Day. I made a commitment. I can’t back out now. We can still do something after that. Besides, we’re going to the Science Museum with Caryssa and George and Tyler tomorrow, remember? Doesn’t that count as family time?”

“I guess...” Jim said. “How about this. I’ll take Ben to the park now and you do what you have to do. We’ll figure out something for later on. Maybe order pizza and have movie night?”

“Oh honey…pizza night? It sounds great. But…should we be spending money on order in right now?”

“Maybe not, but look. We both work so hard. We have to take a break every once in a while. We’ll scrimp somewhere else. Wouldn’t you love to take a night off cooking?”

“You have a point! I’ll be wiped out from the day by then and it will be nice not to cook. Okay. It’s a date. You guys have fun and I’ll see you later on.”

The next day at the Children’s Science Museum, Caryssa noticed that Sam didn’t seem her usual cheerful self. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You seem preoccupied.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, I guess I am preoccupied. Money is so tight right now. Can you believe we had to think twice about having a pizza night last night? Jim is a supervisor at his organization, but he’s tapped out salary wise. There’s only so much money a social worker can make. Even if he earned a Master’s degree, it’s not clear he could further his career much. I don’t know how we’re going to get ahead.”

Jim, who was standing near the women gazing at the giant replica of a dinosaur at the entrance of the Hall, said “Well dear, I am fifty-three years old with a five-year old son to spend time with. I will not be going back to school at all!”

“Oh, I am not saying you should…just it’s so unfair how much you are paid for what you do for people!” Sam responded.

“I have more respect for you spending time with your son now Jim,” Caryssa said. “Much more than if you went off to study for a Master’s degree at this point in your life, just to have a chance at the proverbial brass ring. That can wait until he is older.”

“Oh man, I can’t study for anything when I’m sixty. I won’t have any energy left!” joked Jim. “One college degree is enough for me!”

Sam interjected “You would not believe what he does. Some of the children he works with have been abandoned! Society expects the worst from them. Some have issues stemming from domestic abuse. It’s so sad. There are homeless teens he helps…”

Sam trailed off, as the group caught up with the boys excitedly running towards the Kapla blocks.

“Do you think this place needs more scientific stuff?” asked Caryssa. “It seems there could be more.”

“Yeah well, all these things cost money…you know the song and dance. The state cuts school district budgets during the Wall-Street-induced economic recession rather than other areas that make more sense, and it hurts places like these organizations for the kids,” George sighed. As a scientist, he was insulted that we could ever consider cutting budgets around scientific research and education.

“Yeah…if we didn’t spend so much on so-called defense,” Caryssa added, making quotation marks with her fingers, “those school and scientific budget cuts would not be happening. What do you want, smart kids or smart bombs?”

“As if there is such thing as ‘smart’ bombs? They are senseless…we are such a techno-militarized economy. All that money wasted on destruction, rather than put into construction,” Sam replied. “All that ‘humanitarian’ bombing. What does that even mean?! I wonder…how the heck did the USA, the nation we’ve been conditioned to think so ‘civilized’, get to this point?”

“Well, just as Hitler had his people indoctrinated, misinformed, inoculated, and dumbed-down to believe his lies, ditto with our dictatorship of leaders,” Caryssa was loving the sounds of the little curious Georges running around. “Knowledge is power, and corrupt governments don’t want the people in power.”

Sam nodded. “Intellectual Holocaust! Cultural annihilation! The most developed nations are now the least civilized…”

Caryssa turned her attention again to the carefree, beautiful sounds of their children laughing in the background.

“Animals are not as bad as some humans!” Sam continued. “Why? Because animals aren’t trained by society to deny their happy, loving nature in order to be a ‘well behaved’ animal within a badly behaved cultural norm. Well, maybe it happens at the circus, but that’s not as bad as what we do to humans.”

They were silent a moment, glancing at all the children enjoying the Science Museum, soaking up knowledge like little sponges.

Sam was on a roll. The conversation had touched a chord in her, and now she was the one who found it hard to stop talking.

“The Germans back in Nazi days were told that Hitler was sent by God to bring order to Germany, to give the country its autobahn and rescue them from the terror of the Jews. Can you imagine? And really, it’s not much different here. What do you think ‘one nation under God’ means? That the U.S. has been commissioned by God to send multi-billions of aid to Israel on some radical mission to support ‘his chosen ones’? This is how ‘terrorism’ is created. And the religious language is used to justify it. But it’s been like that throughout history. Religion has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.”

“We are a culture of irrelevant revenge. You know, it was Hitler himself who said ‘What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.’ And it sure seems to me most people in this country aren’t thinking. It’s scary,” Caryssa sipped her latte.

“Yeah. Our culture itself has some type of personality disorder,” Sam replied. “Ingrained patterns of relating to other people, situations, and events with a rigid and maladaptive pattern of inner experience and behavior, dating back to previous history.”

“Seriously,” Caryssa nodded. “If people loved each other as much as they seem to love our freaking flag, we would have peace! Hey…not to change the subject. But let’s change the subject. I’m getting the heebie jeebies.”

Sam giggled. “Yeah. Me too! What shall we talk about?”

“Well…how’s your job going? Anything new and exciting?”

“Not much exciting. But it’s helping to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, love the legal profession. Some of the lawyers I work with can be ass-wipes, but that’s par for the course!”

“Last I spoke to you, you were hoping to cut back your hours to spend more time with your son. What’s with that? Any progress?” asked Caryssa.

“I did work it out with my boss to schedule in only 32 hours,” Sam replied. “But honestly, I want to work less. The older Ben gets the more turmoil I feel, you know? He’s in school now. So someone else is teaching him most of the day, but he still can’t come home because of my work schedule and commute. So he goes to daycare to be parented by someone else. It’s a good daycare, of course. But I worry that he’s learning someone else’s morals. And, besides that, jeez. I want more time with my kid! Time is going so fast and I can feel that the next thing I know he’ll be off to college. There has to be another way!”

Caryssa reached out a comforting hand and gave Sam’s shoulder a squeeze. She could see that her friend was almost in tears. “But obviously, you and Jim are balancing things out well with Ben. Look how well he’s doing in school. And in life overall! He’s a bright, happy kid.”

Sam straightened her shoulders and reached into her purse for a tissue. It was clear she needed to change the subject. “How about you? You’re so busy. All that volunteer work. I admire you, helping people in all the ways you do. I don’t know how you manage, but I suspect I wouldn’t be able to keep up with you if I were a stay-at-home Mom! And you still manage to stay so fit! How do you do it?”

“Well, fitness is important to me. Hey, I squeezed in some type of exercise almost every day when I was pulling seventy-hour work weeks. Why not now? I believe everyone has time to exercise, if they make it a priority. We have to stay alive a while, and stay as healthy as we can. We have kids!”

“Anyway, weren’t you offered a job with the environmental organization you’ve been volunteering at?” asked Sam.

“Oh…yes!” Caryssa replied. “The founder talked to me about a position, very part time, helping with pesticide management and creating awareness with schools, pediatricians, and the parent community. Plus lobbying for stronger environmental laws. I got the offer letter yesterday.”

“So this is the organization focused on the environmental effects on children?”

“Yes! It’s called Mothers for Sustainability or MFS. This job pays peanuts unfortunately. I’ve finally accepted that I’m not likely to ever make the six figures I made ten years ago!” laughed Caryssa. “At least not anytime soon while I try to change the world for the better for our kids!”

“But this is what you want to do now…and maybe someday it will amount to more,” Sam said. “It seems there is a push getting folks to see that one of the biggest issues facing our nation is environmental pollution.”

“Yes. It’s important work. I’m hoping the meetings will work with my schedule. That is a concern. How will I get to a meeting if Tyler isn’t in school? It’s almost summer break! I’ll have to arrange something with a friend, and hope they’ll be available when meetings come up. The schedule is kind of loose so I can’t predict when I’ll need somebody. Or I’ll have to hope there is space in one of those over-priced summer camps for the day! The irony is that I will be spending my day’s pay on child care if it comes to that. And then I’ll have to ask myself why I’m even bothering to work. It’s a catch-22.”

Sam sighed. “I hearya. It’s the double-edged sword we always come against. Hey, speaking of kids. Where are the boys?”

The two women walked around the corner, and there they were, their beautiful, sweet-natured boys, playing with the boats. Tyler, with legs up to his ears already, his twinkling deep-set blue-green eyes filled with laughter. She realized as she gazed at them, she is not trying to change the world. She already accepted this beautiful world as is. She is merely trying to find a fresh way to contribute in it.

“Don’t you have daycare through your school?” asked Sam.

“Yes, and Tyler is signed up for two days a week. But there is no guarantee he can get in on whatever day the meeting would be scheduled. And it get expensive! Caryssa answered.

“Isn’t it funny how before we were parents, we would lose our identity in our work, like it was the be-all and end-all of our existence?” Sam said. “Now, when we work outside of raising our children, breadwinner or not, it’s almost like something we do on the side of our primary job. Something we try to squeeze in.”

“Yup,” said Caryssa. “Yet at the same time, I hear some employers say that the parents in their businesses are the most productive. They work more efficiently in many cases. They know they have time constraints in a way nonparents don’t. So they buckle down and get done what needs to be done, no dilly dallying!”

“I think there is something fundamentally wrong with feeling like we need to integrate parenthood into our careers, rather than vice versa,” Sam said. “They are both jobs, one taking care of the almighty dollar, the other the more important child. Of course, we need enough of the almighty dollar to take care of that more important part of life!”

“I know, right?!” Caryssa replied. “My mother will say to me now and then ‘don’t lose yourself in motherhood.’ But wasn’t I also advised not to lose my identity in a career? If we can’t center our lives on our children, what is life about? Money?”

“I do see happier faces on the kids that have a parent volunteering time at school, or at least spending time with them each day,” Sam responded.

“Speaking of which—I am so proud of you for making so many efforts to leave work and stop by Ben’s school, or otherwise remain so involved,” Caryssa said. “I know how hard that is.”

“Thanks…I appreciate you saying that. It’s not easy! So…when did you first decide not to go back to your career, Caryssa?”

“Oh, it’s hard to say. Probably right away…I mean, I had sent my resume out and interviewed as early as when Tyler was seven months old, and again when he was nine months old. But neither job was anything that required my level of experience and education. I knew I didn’t have time to work at my former level. And certainly not in the high tech industry…unless I cloned myself or paid for an expensive nanny!”

“Wow, I think I’ve heard something about the ghettoizing of a mother’s career. I have two full-time jobs, motherhood and my paying one.”

“I’m not superwoman like you,” Caryssa responded. “I honestly don’t know how you do it.”

“Back atcha, girlfriend! I sometimes think that community would fall apart without you!” Sam said.

“Thanks. I don’t know about that. But I do know that many of us have taken it upon ourselves to be everything to our children that our society refuses to be,” Caryssa said quietly. “In any case, I guess the time I realized I would not go back to my career anytime soon was the first time I held Tyler in my arms. Both of us a little tremulous, the tiny bow-like mouth frantically searching for my breast. And I realized he knew my voice! I think that’s what decided it.”

“Yes…the ease, the awe, the fiery rush of love. Completeness!”

“Completeness! Yes! That’s it exactly. My vision of motherhood, before the fact, never encompassed all that it is…a cultural, spiritual, bird’s eye view of the world…no more tunnel vision about profession or self. No more seeing only what is significant in that one corner of the world.”

“Yeah, I hear you! Oh, I can only imagine when you were writing all that high tech stuff,” Sam said. “You are so passionate about everything you do!”

“I had megabits, gigabits, fiber optic, LAN, WAN, IP, routers and the weird wired world engrained in my brain. It’s all I read about,” Caryssa said.

“No wonder you got so burnt out!” Sam said.

“Yeah…like you said, I can’t do anything half assed!” Caryssa laughed. “I put too much energy into everything I do. Now all that energy is being put into motherhood. And of course, this whole trying-to-change-the-world thingy.”

As the women lapsed into thoughtful silence, the dads and boys came around the corner. “Hey ladies, we just finished the test your Lego buildings with earthquakes station. We’re headed outside to the pond explorations area,” George announced.

The little boys ran excitedly towards the fresh outdoors to new adventures, spirit, and fun, the dads following more slowly.

“Well, it looks like our kids sure aren’t complaining about not having enough scientific things to explore,” remarked Sam.

“Oh no…I guess there is plenty enough here to keep them entertained. In fact, we’re surrounded with so much technology maybe I said there’s not enough science too soon!” Caryssa replied. “I don’t know about this nanotechnology stuff in that corner…kind of scary.”

“What do you mean? Ben loved the nano zone stations! How to make things millions of times smaller! He especially loves the gecko on the wall…what could possibly be scary about this stuff? Are you getting weird on us again, Caryssa? Sometimes I think you over analyze things. You’re not a career marketing analyst anymore, remember?”

For a moment, Caryssa felt a deep, familiar melancholy. The type of blow each time she realized how far her highly paid career was vanishing into the past. All the while she was learning about the environmental hazards we are all increasingly subjected to. Ironically, because of increasing technological innovations. And the driving force behind much of this technology? The toxics-rich semiconductor chip. The very technology that had brought her to Silicon Valley in the first place. She hadn’t known then that semiconductor chips are highly toxic with glycol ether and linked to birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer. Would such knowledge have made a difference to her then? One of many questions Caryssa simply couldn’t answer.

“Well Sam, yes.” Caryssa looked around the museum. “I agree everything here at the Children’s Hall of Science is great for the kids. I would never repeat what I am about to say in front of them. It’s just that nanotechnology has too many questionable things about it. We have plunged ahead with putting nanoparticles into so many products out there. And several studies have indicated they might lead to a gamut of adverse health effects on humans and animals.”

“Like?” inquired Sam, with a less than interested, rather bemused expression on her face. She loved Caryssa, but sometimes she was so…obsessed with all this stuff. It got hard to listen to.

“There are silver ion nanoparticles infused into things like antibacterial soaps, paints, lunchboxes, toothbrushes, plastic food storage bags—to reduce bacteria, mold, and fungus. But they have been scientifically proven to penetrate human organs, damaging liver, stem, and brain cells!” Caryssa replied. “Really, Hon. Don’t buy Ben any of those soft lunch boxes saying ‘microban’ on them. Even Crocs have nano particles.”

Sam hackles were rising. She was getting tired of being preached to. She knew her friend meant well, but really. “How the heck did we get from Mr. Gecko here to plastic food storage containers and fungus?” she barked. “Man, Caryssa, you are becoming possessed with the demon of DNA! I am half expecting your head to turn, and green shit to start spewing out your mouth! Satan will say ‘Your mother sucks mold infested shrooms and will die of disease!’ For crying out loud, can you give it a rest?! Can we enjoy our time here?! Jeez!”

“Sorry, guess I’m not promoting peace of mind, am I,” sighed Caryssa. “All I know is that technology as a whole needs to be looked at further before we keep making these products. Too many health problems are linked to the clean rooms of chip manufacturers, the over-proliferation of cell towers, EMFs from so much wireless technology.”

“Looking around here, I see lots of computers and other technology in one form or other. I guess we are all being bombarded with electromagnetic what-nots or nano-what-the-hecks every second of our lives. We’re doomed! laughed Sam, a little contrite that she had blown up at Caryssa. “But you know what? I can’t get all caught up in this stuff like you do. It would drive me nuts!”

“I know…I know. It is driving me nuts! But it might be better to be an aware nutcase than an unaware cancer patient. These nanoparticles, which have not been fully tested by EPA, have been driven into mainstream stuff like socks! Socks! Hey consumers, get your toxic socks here, no more foot odor! I even saw nanotechnology listed as a material used in winter coats the other day!”

“OK, girlfriend, I’ll be sure not to buy any nano-socks, nano-anything. I couldn’t fit them into my budget anyhow if they are some trendy over-priced high tech clothing and gadget fad,” Sam laughed. “If they are like those five-hundred-dollar smart phones people obsess about, nope!”

“Well, these technologies are being driven into every facet of life, including medical technology—you know, people are swallowing cameras and computers! It’s great we can detect cancer early, but then it begs the question, might this technology itself be causing the cancer? People are swallowing this stuff, wires all hooked to them with electromagnetic waves passing through their intestines, their tissues,” Caryssa shook her head. “Then they poop the toxins out! Talk about toxic fecal matter! Seriously. Its nuts!”

“Ha ha, that lady is talking about poop!” squealed a little boy running past them.

“Jeez…now you are getting gross on top of the weirdness,” Sam said. “And you know, there seems to be nothing we can do about it…so much money thrown at these things that the science proving ill health is tossed aside like a wet rag, Look how long it took for people to finally realize cigarettes cause cancer, including second-hand smoke. And we still have the cancer sticks on the market! Anyhow, I think it’s our food causing most cancer and other health problems. Our industrialized food system is the culprit.”

“Now isn’t that a soothing thought? We could at least decide not to buy half the electronics out there if we wanted to. But we can’t starve ourselves. And most of us aren’t in a position to grow our own food,” Caryssa responded.

Sam took a sip of latte she had bought in the café, glancing around at all the little Einstein’s at play, little Curious Georges running around soaking up the knowledge. Cute little monkeys only wishing to do well. Shouldn’t we be looking at all this more optimistically?

“And there lies another of these ‘great new technologies’ …genetic engineering!” Caryssa continued.

Arrgggg! Caryssa! Please stop! Enough is enough!”

“I’ll stop, but seriously…google ‘Monsanto’ if you want a good scare!”

“Oh God, get me out of here, please! If you won’t stop, I’m going somewhere else!” Sam laughed and ran off to join the boys and their dads, who had moved on to building some complex mission with the kapla blocks.

On the way home, Caryssa thought more about getting back to her marketing career. But this time in a socially and environmentally responsible corporation. A non-profit or something. As Sam had demonstrated, she had the passion for the work. Plus she wanted a bigger audience. Hmmm…something to research. There had to be a company out there who fit the bill.

It had been a while since Tyler had brought up the angel and God theory. But that night, as Caryssa and Tyler said a prayer and she kissed him goodnight, Tyler threw her for a loop.

“Mommy, you know how the angels and God are on the inside?” His little arms went around her neck, while he looked dreamily into her eyes. She leaned over him. “Well, like, God should be inside people. That way, like…you, don’t have to want things on the outside so much, you don’t need to fill up all the bad feelings inside you.”

The bad feelings inside you? The empty holes? A nearly six-year old's way of saying that if you let God—or whatever spiritual goodness you can identify with—in, you won’t need so many material things?

“Tyler, that’s so beautiful…can you tell me more?” Caryssa asked, feeling a huge tug at her heart.

“Well, like, you know, like…if God is in your middle, he fills it up. If he’s not, there’s nothing in there, so things….like people feel like they need stuff … sorta … put in their middle….like bigger houses, maybe even a super duper new shiny car!”

“Wow, that is amazing. Where did you hear this, little man?”

“I don’t remember, Mommy. Nowhere I guess. I kinda made it up. I feel like I’ve always known it. Or maybe I heard it at church,” Tyler said.

Later that same night, as they were sitting together on the deck watching the lights on the bay, Caryssa told George what Tyler had said. “It amazes me…do you think he did hear this in church?”

“In church?” George responded. “Doubtful, since the Catholic Church has become big business. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came to the conclusion on his own by observing us and how we live. He sees how frugal we are. He also sees how content we are.”

George reached out and gently took Caryssa’s hand, pulling it under his arm and clasping it tight to his chest, the way she loved. She scooted her chair a little closer so she could lean against him, her head on his shoulder. He kissed the top of her head. Then he continued.

“Our lifestyle is simple. But it’s fulfilling. I mean, we live well. But we don’t spend beyond our means. We don’t have credit card debt. We don’t live a life of conspicuous consumption. You could say we live a life of frugal and happy consumption.”

Caryssa’s mind danced in circles. Has she become so frugal it shows? She glanced out her living room window at the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the breathtaking view of the bay, and then looked around at her home. I could not be that frugal if we bought this beautiful house together! We live the good life, skiing, hiking, biking, camping, dinners, traveling. We give Tyler a good life. And spend tons of time with him. It may not be quite the cherry blossomed childhood she remembers---huge house, two cottages, three boats, trip’s to Disney. But who does have this today?

“Did I tell you about the book we designed together for a school project?” she asked George. “It’s called ‘The World According to Tyler.’ One thing it asked was for the child to name twelve people they love and why. One of the first five people he named was himself! He wrote ’I love me. Because I can do things by myself!’ Amazing.”

“Wow. I am not being biased to say that is amazing…at his age, to already have the insight to know he has to love himself first….wow!”

Later that night, Caryssa reflected how she had made a practice of living moment by moment, frighteningly aware yet without sweating the small stuff. She hopped into bed and stretched, feeling the calm throughout her body. Then she snuggled up to George, who was finishing reading an article in one of his scientific journals. He pulled her close, took off his reading glasses, set them on the nightstand, and switched off the light.

As Caryssa drifted off to sleep, she thanked God for many things, including being in the “middle” of her child’s heart, guiding her little prophet to happiness, such simple peace and joy of life.

That is all she needed to feel happy. Oh, and maybe one more thing.

“George honey?” she murmured before her eyes closed for the last time.


“Maybe we could get a wicker loveseat for the backyard patio, so we don’t have to sit in separate chairs when we want to snuggle and watch the lights on the bay. Would that be conspicuous consumption?”

George laughed softly into her hair and gave her a squeeze.

“No, my darling crusader. It wouldn’t be,” he murmured. “It would be frugal, happy consumption. I’ll take a look at the budget tomorrow and you start researching.”

“Sounds like a plan,” she whispered. “Sounds like … a …good….”

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