El Cerrito Hills, California
Late April 2020
“God almighty. This is scary,” I said, while sipping my latte.
“What are you reading?” George had his iPad propped onto a tablet pillow holder and was studying me with a skeptical look on his face.
We were sitting in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. Sunshine streamed through the open window, casting an idyllic glow across the room. With businesses locked down, the air was so clean, I could see clear to the Golden Gate Bridge, like I could reach out and touch it with my fingertips.
“About the venture capitalist who designed an entire virtual reality out of Silicon Valley. She called it Stay at Home Valley. Look, there’s Cisco, Uber, Lyft, Symantec and other tech companies all designed onto an interactive online map. They just open a link, zoom around and conduct business as usual—”
“What the heck are you so worried about?” George grabbed my newspaper and read for a moment. “What’s so scary about this, Caryss? It’s a way to stay open for business during a global pandemic.”
“For Christ sakes! Within twenty-four hours, this virtual world expanded to LA, Seattle, from Lisbon to London!” I squealed. “Aren’t you concerned our world is developing beyond a virtual reality—into a futuristic synthetic reality?”
“Would you prefer a total economic meltdown?” George questioned, going back to robotically staring at his iPad screen.
“Seems to be already happening, with or without this AI built on top of more AI. My point is, human touch is being diminished to a computer screen.” I insisted.
With an annoyed sounding harrumph, George shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s temporary.”
“We better hope so, for our next generations’ sake. Check this out… the software simulation of Silicon Valley even has secret tunnels between Twitter and Square, to travel between video conferencing meetings.” I shoved the paper into George’s face.
After glancing again at the article that had set me off, George flung the paper as if swatting flies, then stepped out of the room. “I’m making another latte; would you like one?”
“I’d love a second, thanks. Your Sunday morning breakfasts-in-bed always make me happy, honey.” And today’s menu included a special item: Cinnamon-spiced lattes.
The purring of the espresso machine calms my spirit, grounding my thoughts. The simple beauty of my home, full of the sounds of love, music and movies, mixed with the easy bickering of twenty years of marriage kept me centered.
The rich aroma of coffee drifted to my nostrils, a caramelized and nutty blend relaxing the senses. Then the sound of Tyler’s bedroom door opening, and I expect to hear the shower running. Instead, my sweet sixteen-year-old appeared at my door.
“Don’t worry, Mom, that Silicon Valley online universe sounds like Minecraft. I only suffer from a VR hangover a few times a day,” Tyler laughed. Then he pulled a face mask over his mouth and nose, securing the loops behind his ears. “I’m off to the money masquerade you claim the actual world has turned into.”
A laugh bubbled up to my lips, then escaped into one of those deep belly laughs that brought tears to my eyes; the laugh that lets me fall into the hilarity of the situation. A friend home-stitched a few masks for me, and Tyler wore one with the printed fabric of dollar bills. “Where’re you going?” I asked.
“I’m going for a walk around the golf course with Ryder and Lance,” Tyler answered while grabbing his water bottle from the stairway landing.
Excellent, the fresh air, exercise and seeing friends in person will do him good. “Make sure you keep a six-foot physical distance from people,” I said to his back as he exited the house. I was so happy to see my kid off video games.
George placed the coffee on my bedside table. I had lit a candle and classical music playing. The soft melodies of Für Elise tugged at my heartstrings. When Tyler was a toddler, he’d sit, stand and spin around 360-degrees in his activity table. His tiny, springy legs would jump up and down, pressing buttons on all the engaging toys, while this song played.
“I’m going outside to build the raised garden beds,” George told me. “And hey,” he used his finger to move my chin toward him, “I understand your concern for the totally weird and wireless world developing around our son, and what it does to kids these days.”
I nodded, nothing else to say. “I’ll join you after I do something in Tyler’s room.”
Taking my latte and a cardboard box into Tyler’s room, I look around and had a flashback to a crib with a musical mobile hanging over my baby’s face, little jungle animals hanging down. The room’s been teenagerized since then, but still held remnants of things hard to let go of, like Legos and Hot Wheels.
Cleaning and organizing the bookcase is my foremost goal, to make space for upcoming college books. Who am I kidding? He’ll be moving out. My heart lurched as I pull down piles of favorites: Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Calvin & Hobbes.
About thirty books land in the box I know I can’t ever give away. They’ll make it as far as the garage or basement, and I’ll tell myself to give them to the grandkids. My eyes rested on one I read over and over to Tyler. All these books hold such critical messages to children. I picked up The Lorax, opened it up, and read:
“Mister!! He said with a sawdusty sneeze,
I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs”—
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed—
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”
Yes, Mr. Lorax, what the fuck ARE all the greedy businessmen making out of those Cypress trees? My hands shook as I returned the Dr. Seuss book to the box and lifted a Calvin & Hobbes one; and again, my eyes landed on a message about environmental destruction as told by a six-year-old boy to his beloved stuffed tiger:
“Have you been reading the papers?
Grown-ups really have the world fouled up.
Acid rain, toxic wastes, holes in the ozone, sewage in the oceans, and on and on.
The only bright side to all this is eventually there may not be a piece of the planet
worth fighting over.”
Tears rolled down my cheeks. I sat on my child’s bed roaming through more books. I didn’t even have to open Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to remember a similar message. And here we are today; sheltered-in-place because of humanity’s exploitation of animals, people, and the natural world.
War and disease have been linked throughout history. The Spanish Flu of 1918 originated at a US Military training camp and was heartbreakingly spread by exploited soldiers in crowded conditions. The disease sailed to Europe and back and killed fifty million people globally. Shouldn’t we have learned how the ’power of war’ impacts the health of the environment, and how the power of disease in turn influences the barbaric conduct of war?
On top of the constant surveillance and bombing—our nation’s aerial curtain descended across a huge swath of the planet over the past two decades—we cannot get high and mighty about China’s “wet market.” Our practice of factory farming causes at least as much cruelty to animals and biodiversity. It’s simply industrialized, hiding behind a corporate veil.
I placed the boxed books in the corner of Tyler’s room and joined George in the garden, digging, weeding and enjoying our panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay. An hour later, Tyler came back with a small bushel of wildflowers in his hands.
“Here, Mom, these are for you. And don’t worry, meadow buttercups aren’t illegal to pick,” he said while handing me the beautiful yellow flowers with shiny petals. My heart melted, and I wrapped my arms around him.
“Is that another baby tomato plant you have,” I asked Tyler.
“Yes, Lance gave me another one from his garden.”
Last year, I cherished watching Tyler care for the tomato plant he received from his friend. He had been so concerned for the well-being of that plant; watering, cultivating, pruning, staking, and nurturing it to health. Then the best part—harvesting and eating the juicy fruit of his labor of love.
While propagating succulents, I heard Tyler talking on his phone. “It totally sucks we can’t get our license. I was so close! Everything’s canceled — school, proms, SAT testing, college tours, life. They canceled our fucking world, dude!”
My hand froze on the garden spade, and I wondered if he knew I could hear him. I’d rarely heard my kid curse, or sound angry. I’d been asking him how he felt during this crisis, but like most teenagers, he doesn’t open his emotions to his mother. Am I in control of my kid anymore? Do I need to be since he’s never gotten into any trouble?
Do I even know what’s inside his mind?
It was that moment I realized teens are in a much worse position than adults with the Cloud Virus. They’re at an innate developmental time that makes it socially, emotionally, and intellectually detrimental for them to be isolated at home. Critical milestones are being halted.
That night I had a dream. I wasn’t there, but somehow watched it from afar:
Tyler and friends are emerging from a house party. It looks like on a college campus at some palm-tree lined community. They’re laughing, acting drunk, and climbing into a white SUV. The car pulls away from the curb… only nobody is in the driver’s seat. The steering wheel is turning itself, the blinkers are self-regulating, and the boys are giddy and lighthearted.
“Dudes, so good to have a designated driver!” One boy joked.
Another boy points to the empty driver’s seat. “Meet our loyal friend, AI Guy.”
Laughter all around. “Our plastic chauffer named Jonny Cab!”
They’re traveling down the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway. Suddenly, the computerized dashboard goes blank, dropping them into darkness. The car is no longer being steered by its AI. The boys, at first, still joke nervously:
“Hey dudes, was our AI friend at the party with us? Is he drunk too?”
“This isn’t fucking funny anymore!” Tyler yells back.
The boys desperately try to report the malfunction to law enforcement, their parents, whoever. But they get no signal on their mobile phones.
“What the fuck! Is the entire 5g network down?” They try to steer the car to safety but can’t even turn the wheel without logging into an off-route path.
The car veers toward a pile-up of crashed cars, then plunges off a cliff—airborne–before it disappears into the ocean.
The nightmare startled me awake and I shot up in my bed, sweat soaking my silk pajamas. I could hear George already on a video conference call in the kitchen.
The first thing I did was turn on my smartphone so I could hear those magical pings to the weird-wired-world. There’s a text from Anna:
Sean has disappeared from the underground bunker. Possibly kidnapped.
That launched me from a dreadful dream into a real-life-nightmare.