The Money Masquerade

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Chapter 10

From El Cerrito Hills to Los Altos Hills, California


Two weeks later (three months after the mass shooting)

It happens every time I drive past Eucalyptus Park. A tug at my heartstrings.

This morning, nostalgia hit so hard I pulled over to the curb and burst into tears. Watching young babies on blankets and children at play, each vision transforms into Tyler when he was small.

There he is; an infant in his stroller; a toddler in the sandbox; a five-year-old twisting and turning down the super-tube slide.

When did my little kid become a big kid? It’s like I had the best seat in the house but was late getting back from intermission and missed part of the show. Or did I sleep through it?

But that can’t be right. I was present for each milestone. I was there every second, giving up my profession so I could be with him. I gave up money so I could live in the moment—altering everything, my passions, and dreams switching from career to kid.

Instantly, I see the connection of the emotions pulling me to this curbside in a heap of sobs to this place in time. Over a decade of playdates happened at this park. It’s where I met Anna—the one person who understands my fear of anything hurting my only child. The woman who introduced me to Julie, who in a curious twist of fate, is dating a former Silicon Valley colleague of mine.

And both women escaped a mass shooting with me in a sleepy San Francisco Bay café.

My emotional state passing by this park runs deeper than reminiscing about my kid playing here. It’s the years since leaving my powerful, influential job; the recognition of high-tech’s early roots in the communications of war; seeing how close my child’s loving community and life is to the hidden geopolitical purpose behind the internet technology.

It’s bumping into a man connected to my past career and current circle of friends. A man who’s only fault is getting caught up with the millions of other Americans working within the industry Eisenhower warned us about fifty-eight years ago.

Sean Coleman. I had advised him over a decade ago to get as far away from military contracts as he could. I remember what he said: “I feel pegged working in the fed region because I bring in so much money. Do you think political policy will change? Guns and war are too deeply woven into the fabric of American financial identity.”

Squeals of childhood laughter float through my open window. I scan the park. Layers of memories flash before me: The duck pond, scooter path, the hills, and tennis courts—all part of Tyler’s youth. I think out loud, Wait, slow down, you can’t keep growing up so fast! I haven’t changed the world yet! It’s still too fucked up for you to go out on your own!

Someone walking by overheard me and I get a strange look as if to say; great, another crazy lady.

I realize my child isn’t just a person. He’s a place. A vast eternal place where the present I am living and the past I remember and the future I long for all exist at once. In a rush of sensations; a love so deep it’s indescribable.

Tyler is this park. He’s the Silicon Valley that lured me to California from Boston twenty-five years ago. He’s the ocean and the sky, the Lake Tahoe mountains where I met the man who brought him into the world with me. He’s… that world to me.

This world— where those in power have failed to act against climate change and making weapons so accessible globally and at a sporting store down the street near every American, turning schools, concerts, coffee shops, garlic festivals, and even homes into mini warzones.

Looking through the car windows at the beautiful hillside park with its open grass, lush flowers, and palm trees, such reflections don’t fit here. Yet I recall having exactly this conversation with other parents while our small children ran around carefree climbing trees and sliding down the hillside.

My nostalgia lifted me out of my car, and I walked the park grounds. The trees showed signs of autumn with glowing gold and red leaves contrasting beautifully against the palms. I’ve always loved that about California; nature's paintbrush at work. A young boy caught fish, or maybe tadpoles, with a net. It reminded me of the days Tyler spent at this duck pond doing the same thing.

I sat on a park bench for a while, watching and wondering how a child can go from six to sixteen in the blink of an eye. My boy grew faster than my bank account. Perhaps that’s what scares me the most.

I’d been looking for a line of demarcation that may not exist. It was gradual—this growing up thing. Yet it happened overnight. There was a distinct moment I knew Tyler became independent. The first time I dropped him off at school and he never looked back: no kiss, no goodbye, no response when I said, “Have a good day, I love you!”

He was thirteen—or was it before that? He’d merely waved his hand walking toward the school, as if to say, “I’ve got this Mom.” While crushed, I realized it was a good thing. My boy was growing up.

Now, three years later, I’m entering a neutral territory. Not just letting go of my kid—but coming to terms with the reality that I can’t change the world he’s growing up in. Not alone anyhow. It takes a village.

I jump back into the car and pull away from the curb, headed home to pick up my husband George. Julie invited us to a party at Sean Coleman’s mini-mansion of a house in Los Altos Hills.

According to the Evite, I knew a fair number of people planning to be there—among them VC’s, engineers, entrepreneurs, salespeople, analysts, and others I’d not seen in almost two decades.

This will be a good test for a mom obsessed with changing the world, socializing with otherwise good people working in a bubble somewhat disrupting the world.

My beloved Silicon Valley.

We drove through picturesque valleys, past gracious multi-million-dollar homes into the lush rolling hills of Los Altos. I entered Sean’s address into Google Maps and pressed start, which took us up a steep winding incline.

“This town seems a million miles away from the tech-boom pressure cooker,” I said.

“You didn’t live far from here yourself at one time,” George responded.

“True, yet Mountain View and Saratoga are not a playground for the valley’s biggest stars like the Los Altos Hills.”

Google Maps talked to us through each turn, until we came to the address Julie gave us. “Holy crap!” George exclaimed, “Julie’s dating a movie star, not a tech rock-star.”

“It’s all connected… Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington, and Wall Street all work together. However, out of the bunch, I’d say Silicon Valley is now the most powerful.”

We parked behind a Tesla sports model and among a few Mercedes, Lamborghini’s, and other expensive wheels. I half expected a private jet to land on the sprawling Mediterranean-style construction laid out in front of us.

I could hear Julie’s laugh before I saw her from afar, soaking in the hot tub with Anna and a handful of other people while watching the firepit flames dance in the refreshing early night air.

George lingered outside the driver’s side door, putting his sports jacket on. He nervously fidgeted with his skinny black tie. “I’ll barely know a soul here and feel underdressed for the occasion.”

“Don’t worry, these people will be talking about software code, not dress code,” I assured.

Fastening the two top buttons on his jacket and leaving the bottom button undone, George answered “They’ll be talking techy while scrutinizing everyone’s fashions.”

“Well, apparently some people have bathing suits on, so we can’t go wrong dressed like this.” George wore dressy jeans paired with his suit jacket and tie, I opted for a sleeveless black silk jumpsuit with a jean jacket. “I’m less dressed than you are!”

A woman in high heels dressed in a Y-3 tech-knit black dress walked by—a dress I knew from online surfing and went for about $600. “But you might have a valid point,” I said, swallowing hard.

We stood for a moment, scanning the property. It had to be at least a few acres of land, with outstanding views of the western hills and the San Francisco Bay. We could see the pool, spa, and huge wrap around deck surrounded by glass walls offering a glimpse into the living room. Two tall palm trees stood off the side of the deck. Lighted umbrellas added a nice evening ambiance.

Despite the over-the-top opulence symbolizing the moral bankruptcy of unbridled capitalism, I felt excited to roam the grounds and see people. “Come on, George, let’s not be anti-social!” I walked ahead, hearing George’s mumblings about trying to save the bay while these guys talk about their next disruptive technology to “save the world.”

George made a beeline to the wine table but rather than follow him, I overheard a familiar voice and turned. It was Sean talking into his cell phone on a lighted path off to the side of the house. It seemed like he was on a business call. I remember these days, working nonstop on weekends.

Curiosity inched me closer as I listened:

I want to tie up this IPO, but hidden forces in China are stopping me,” Sean said.

A male voice bellowed over his speakerphone, “Fucking trade war with China! Pick some nerdy university student’s brains or something! Come on, Coleman, you’re a Stanford grad, get some smart kids to help.”

“You don’t understand, the environmental regulations in California are—”

“Get past the regulations any way you can and expedite our supply chain of rare earth metals. The ore needs to come from American soil. Otherwise, your startup will fail. The technology your code will be used for can’t flourish without those gems.”

“I almost got killed in Inner Mongolia after you asked me to get information about processing from Chinese engineers —and my dad died from black lung. I want nothing to do with mining—”

“We can’t rely on foreign sources anymore,” the voice bellowed loud enough for me to hear. The battle for rocks has moved back to Mountain Pass, California. We need to blast the earth’s crust in your backyard, bud. Our DoD contracts are counting on it.”

Sean started pacing while talking. I moved quickly so he wouldn’t see me. His father died of black lung disease. How sad, although so common with miners.

“Here’s your drink, dear,” George said, handing me red wine in tulip-shaped stemware. The second I stuck my nose into the glass, I could tell it was a top-notch vintage.

“Thanks, check out the spread!” I pointed to a table of hors d’oeuvres including oysters on the half shell, olives, artichokes, stuffed mushrooms, and other delights.

“I heard there’s gourmet food tables set up everywhere. Let’s walk around a bit.”

I grabbed a mini meatball and potato skin before moving toward the crowd, and in a primitive manner stuffed them into my mouth and washed them down with wine. Must be the pre-party nerves.

George swirled the crimson liquid, examining it absently. “What did you see on the side of the house, you seemed fixated on something?” He glanced toward the pool and spa area.

“Oh… the stuff I tried to kid myself wouldn’t bother me at this party. I overheard part of a phone conversation—something about exploiting college kid’s brains to plunder Earth’s resources for more advanced technology we don’t truly need, including weapons.” It may be my own geeky kid’s brain soon, I thought, the last frontier of privacy.

“Isn’t that the conversation we always hear at a party?” George joked.

“Maybe within the cryptic language of business and finance. The only conversations I heard around the wine bar involved the stock market. They lost me in financial jargon. It was all about ‘bulls and bears,’ which to me sounds like sports teams. And ‘naked options,’ which sounds like an intimate moment with my husband,” I said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

“What the heck are naked options?” George asked as we walked slowly toward the people wrapped around the pool and spa area.

“Naked options are offered all over this party!” responded a burly guy in a baggy shirt and summer shorts, his heavy arms hanging wide. He looked as if he could wrestle down a bull.

I followed where he pointed and gasped. Anna and Julie were no longer in the hot tub, but in their place were four naked people; three women and one man enjoying himself immensely. I could hear a wiry blonde with ample breasts pitching her tech-innovation idea while holding a beer in her well-manicured hand.

Making light of the situation, I said, “Apparently bathing suits are optional.”

“Apparently, clothing is optional. And there we were concerned about how we dressed for this fancy shindig,” said George.

The brawny guy stuck out his hand, “I’m Pat Parker, a pleasure to meet you. Don’t worry, I don’t comprehend a word of this investment mumbo-jumbo either. I heard the term, ‘the godfather offer.’ All I can think of is Marlon Brando.”

We stood laughing as Pat said, “If you want to learn more about ‘naked options,’ be sure to check out the exclusive hot party going on inside.”

I made a mental note of this seductive private party. “How do you know Sean Coleman?” I asked.

“I’m a data-loving farmer. He and his VC buddies rescued my small farm using technology to help me grow crops. Information technology predicts the impact of pesticides, fertilizers, and using too much water. I’ve improved my yield immensely!”

“Huh, Silicon Valley is still good for something. That’s a great use of technology!”

George and Pat had a nice conversation going about water conservation, which is what George’s career expertise encompasses. I took this opportunity to walk around looking for Anna and Julie among the mixed crowd of hundreds—most looking like they were thirty years younger than me.

Enjoying the fresh air, I strolled along the deck illuminated by party string-lights and entered a foyer leading to another room. Private security guards asked if I was “on the list.”

“This must be the exclusive party I heard about,” I answered. My curiosity was stronger than caution. “I was invited by Sean Coleman.” The guards waved me in, and I felt a little rush of excitement.

The room was darker than the early evening night; the lights dimmed into a hazy, warm tint of red, pink, and orange. In contrast, the room décor was blanketed in plush white faux fur and pillows. The walls were white or full-length glass windows offering a nearly 360-degree view of the Bay and Valley lights.

It took my eyes a moment to adjust, and I saw what this “hot party” comprised. People—lots of people—cuddling and making out. Many were elegantly masked and naked or disrobing; dirty dancing. They switched partners, breaking into twosomes and threesomes. Some seemed to be disappearing into rooms while others got down in the open.

“Holy fuck!” I said out loud. Not the Silicon Valley I remember.

“This isn’t the Prohibition era—loosen up a little!” The voice came from a twenty or early thirty-something male who extended his left hand, palm upward. He sported an ornate costume ball mask, black with streams of metallic silver.

He held tablets—pills molded into the logos of some of the hottest Silicon Valley technology companies. “What are those? I asked naively, guessing correctly what they were.

“Pure ecstasy, otherwise known as Molly. Here, take one. It’ll help you relax into the scene,” he insisted.

“No thanks, I’m sexually satisfied enough. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“What? You can’t just—not hook up with somebody in this part of the party. That’s… voyeurism.”

Voyeurism? Believe me, I’m not here for the show, and I’m already hooked up with someone. My husband.”

I turned to walk out and noticed several of the masked sex participants wore wedding rings. I guess they’re into the same openness and progressiveness that lets them come up with new disruptive technologies, masquerading as “liberal.”

I feared how disruptive this could be to their marriages. I passed the orgy watchdogs and said, “Well that’s quite the startling scene.” They looked at me like I’m a boring old lady living under a rock, which I suppose I’ve become.

“I don’t agree,” said another young male. “It’s fun. I was a virgin until I was twenty-five—too busy playing video games. I’m making up for it now.”

Yikes, that better not be Tyler someday. Visions of my kid playing computer games for hours came to mind. He built his own computer. It had taken him a couple of days, after ordering every part himself.

Then it became more personal when I saw an old boyfriend fornicating with two women in the corner. An old boyfriend I was intimate with and thought I loved. It was easy to see neither partners were his wife since they remained unmasked. I cringed and escaped to fresh air before he saw me.

I’m obviously not the same woman I was when I had sex under a conference-room table at a Networld + Interop trade show or partied half-naked at Burning Man. But even then, I would not have felt comfortable in this exotic erotic ball area of the party.

Back to the deck and pool area, I spotted other people I knew from my Silicon Valley days. George, Anna, and Sean sat at the deck’s corner bistro-table on the other side of the pool. I figured I’d make my way over to them after chatting with former colleagues.

“What a relief to see everyone clothed out here,” I exclaimed.

“So, this is your first encounter of the valley’s new-age cuddle-puddles?” asked Lori, now working for a major competitor of Unabridged Networks.

“Yup, I’m a virgin to these sex and power games,” I answered. “Is this the new norm?”

“Not with us. Seems to be the younger techies and VC community. I heard Sean’s new girlfriend gave him an ultimatum. She warned him to stop hosting any bondage-themed parties.”

“Good for her,” I said. “It’s like the movie ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ in that room.”

No response. Instead, Lori asked, “Where are you these days Caryss, we never see you in the Valley.”

“I live in the East Bay.”

“Well, that’s not far—the tech-hub now runs from San Francisco to San Jose,” said Lori. “I suppose Silicon Valley can be a state of mind.”

“If we want to wax poetic about where Silicon Valley is, we can say it sits in the center of good and evil,” I blurted out before thinking. Shit, so much for my resolve not to get intense about this stuff.

One of the Product Management guys I worked with for years, Scott Rosen, laughed, “Tell us how you really feel, Caryssa.”

“Well… sorry but the sex-orgy thing is exploitive. A reflection of dominance, power, and money. Not to mention I see the technology I helped bring to the world consume my child’s life.” I decided not to mention the link to non-stop wars.

Raising his eyebrows, Scott said, “What happened to the sophisticated, urbane Caryssa we knew in the valley? That workaholic, cutthroat girl that didn’t take shit from anyone?”

“Yeah, this back-to-nature hippy reveling in the soil, sun, and appreciating the simple things in life is a total stranger,” added Lori.

I laughed, trying to take it in stride. “Guess I’d rather have peace on Earth than pieces of Earth.” I piled a plate with hors d’oeuvres and excused myself to join my husband and the others.

When I approached the bistro table, I could sense something between Julie and Sean. A touch of happiness neither of them seemed to have before they met. They were facing each other with their hands intertwined, gazing into each other’s eyes. It warmed my heart.

“There she is,” Anna said. “Strange we haven’t bumped into each other all night.”

“I saw you and Jules in the hot tub earlier, but the nudist camp took over and I fled to the house for cover, only to witness a sex and drug affair,” I laughed.

Was I being prudish? After all, I recall plenty of sexual moments with Silicon Valley dates. Should I be so shocked? But those were all private and exclusive moments, nothing in the open or flamboyant like this.

Sean glanced my way and put his hands up, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t plan the sex party part; that’s the other VC guys. I want no part in it, the women involved can be as bad as the men. They’re Founder Hounders.”

Founder Hounders?” I responded inquisitively. “You mean gold diggers? Hello, Jules. Thanks for inviting us, you guys. This is a beautiful home, Sean. Live entertainment and all; who needs to go to Vegas for nude dancers?”

We all laughed, and Julie said, “This is the last time Sean’s house will be the Venture Capital Sex Entertainment Center, right hon?”

I remembered a time Julie was looking for Mr. Money Bags, someone to help her carry her financial burden. But it was so obvious she genuinely cares for Sean.

Sean brought Julie’s hand to his mouth and kissed it. “Hey before I met you, I didn’t try to stop it while seeking funding for my startup. Technologies are meant to reinforce power.”

“Sex and power go hand-in-hand with the tech elite,” I said. It seemed to me this type of networking was like using technology itself as a drug: Eat. Drugs. Sex. Repeat.

Anna stood and grabbed her purse. “Well, I hate to be a party pooper, but I must get back to Sausalito. Pierre and I have our grandson, Jared, for the weekend. Caryssa, I have something for you in the car.”

“We may as well also get going,” said George. “Thank you, Sean, for an interesting evening. I met some nice people, including your friend Pat Parker.”

“Farmer Pat! We love him!” responded Julie.

As we walked to the street Anna stopped beside her car. “I’m right here, hold on a minute.” She unlocked her vintage BMW and pulled out a painting.

“You bought me a painting?” I squealed.

“Bought? No, I created it.” Anna turned the painting around, and I stood shocked. It was Picasso’s Child with a Dove. Only it wasn’t. It was Anna’s fourth replica of a Picasso painting—and she crafted it for me. I was beyond touched.

The replication is that of a child holding a dove. I looked closer, seeing the same shimmering impressionist palette Picasso brought to Paris in 1901. I saw the same greenish-blue tones and reflection of empathy; human sympathy. But there was one major difference. The little girl was a boy.

And not merely any boy—it was a painting of Tyler. “Oh my God, Anna!”

“I used a photo of Tyler from 2006 when he was playing with Jared at Eucalyptus Park.”

I was almost too emotional to speak. All I could squeeze out was a heartfelt, “Thank you.”

“Look on the back. You were wondering why Ava Ramírez released a dove in your backyard. I think I know why.

I turned the painting around and read the words: If a dove flies into your life, you are being asked to go within and release your emotional disharmony. Doves teach us that, regardless of external circumstances, peace is always a touch away—within us.

With tears rolling down my cheeks, I hugged Anna. “Drive carefully,” we advised each other.

In the car, I turned around to peek at the painting. “What a wonderful way to end the night.”

“Yes, now let’s leave the Playboy mansion behind,” George said, as we eagerly headed back to our simple and harmonious family life and home.

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