Masks of Morality

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Chapter 8

Before parenthood, “happy hour” on Friday nights at Caryssa and George’s had been a rocking, rolling, until three-in-the-morning kinda bash. Anywhere from five to twenty-five close friends stopped by weekly to rock the house away.

But parenthood had grounded them in happiness. They seemed to have their own private happy every day. “We’ve become a couple of happy, middle-aged homebodies!” Caryssa said to George one evening.

The tradition continued, but now more family-style. Families with children Tyler’s age stopping by became the norm. His friends’ parents became their new current group of friends.

This Friday, the group included Sam and Jim and their son Ben, and Stan and Stacy and their sons Tyler and Kiernan.

Caryssa loved preparing for these gatherings. She always wanted her home to be especially lovely, soothing and inviting for her friends. She made each Friday happy hour evening special that way. This time, before her friends arrived, she ran around the house cleaning, putting fresh cut flowers in the kitchen, living room, and family room, and lighting scented candles all around.

She had popped into the quaint shop at the bottom of the hill known for its soaps, candles, and teas, and bought quality scented soaps for each bathroom. She arranged her special decorative washcloths and hand towels on the racks as she had seen done in bed and breakfasts. Finally, she selected a mix of delightful music to display on her ten-CD table, starting the evening off with some relaxing Chopin.

It was a beautiful night, with the sun setting over their tranquil home and garden. Caryssa felt great. She had just stepped out of a beauty parlor and made a quick pit stop at Marshalls. Her blond hair was freshly highlighted and cut, she had on a lovely new sundress with sunflowers all over it, and classy strappy sandals to match.

She had opened a bottle of chilled Pinot Grigio for those who preferred white and a bottle of Zinfandel for those who preferred red and was setting out stemware when Sam, Jim, and Ben arrived. Stan and Stacy and the boys were following close behind.

“Knock knock!” Sam said, coming through the door into the kitchen. “I brought dessert! Tiramisu! No…I didn’t make it myself. You know I don’t have time to be a domestic goddess…but they make it at this fabulous bakery near us. It’s so yum.”

“Oh, thanks!” Caryssa reached for the box Sam was holding out towards her. “This is great! I haven’t had time to even think about dessert. I put together the finger food, and as usual, George is working his magic on the grill. But we forgot about dessert. You’re the best!”

The three boys gathered around Caryssa. “Hey Mrs. Flynn,” said Ben, who was speaking for the group. “May we go find Tyler?”

Caryssa smiled. “Sure, honey. Make yourselves at home. I think he might be near the patio bistro helping his dad get the salmon and veggies ready for grilling.”

The boys ran out to the patio, yelling for Tyler. Caryssa turned to Sam. “He’s such a little gentleman!”

“Sometimes,” Sam winked. “Oh man. We love coming to your house. You guys live the way we do. When friends come over, our kids aren’t relegated to some back room playing videos or watching a kid movie. As if sitting quietly with their head glued to a screen without saying a word is behaving more than running around, laughing, making noise, and playing!”

“Or communicating with us!” added Stacy, joining the two women at the island, picking up a wine glass and tracing the gold lines that wound through the stem and bowl to create a glowing rim. “Wow, Caryssa, you’re using your good stemware tonight?”

“Yup.”Caryssa lifted up one of the fancy blown and etched wine glasses from Romania. “It’s just us, and you guys are worth it to me. These were wedding presents. I bring them out whenever I can because it makes more sense to use them than to stash them away in some china cabinet until we’re dead and gone!”

“Love it,” said Stacy, reaching for the bottle and pouring herself a glass of the perfectly chilled white. “Sam? May I pour some for you?”

“Sure!” Sam proffered her glass. “Thanks!”

“Welcome! Now…what were we talking about? Oh yeah. Kids. They need to learn to socialize with adults too! But be themselves and have fun at the same time.” Caryssa gestured towards the boys, who had made their way from the patio to the living room. “See? What a jovial scene.”

As the kids ran around in circles, entertaining themselves with the easy, carefree way only children are capable of doing, the adult conversation continued to flow easily like the instrumental classical music in the background. “I feel like I’ve lost relationships with other adults since not working outside the home,” Stan said while staring straight up at the ceiling. “This is so delightful, kicking back with a glass of wine and having some much-needed adult conversation.”

“Yeah…copy that!” Caryssa laughed, reaching her glass out to Stan’s for a clink. “Welcome to our world, Stan baby! Moms have been saying that since the beginning of time!”

“So, how’s the school librarian work thingy going Caryssa?” asked Samantha. “And all those other volunteer jobs you do for Tyler’s school?”

“Oh, it’s so nice of you to ask about those jobs!” Caryssa responded. “Nobody seems to ask about non-paid jobs! As if they don’t qualify as work! It’s all going well. I love the kids coming in and asking ‘Tyler’s mom’ questions about the books…and Tyler loves my involvement. May as well do it now, before he gets to an age it would be embarrassing to have mommy around at school.”

“Hah!” Stan laughed. “Tyler’s Mom’. That sounds familiar. Funny how we no longer have real first names. We are our kids’ mom and dad—our new identity in life!”

Eventually, they moved all the food and wine to Caryssa’s backyard and lit the fire pit. Caryssa also lit a few tiki torches for added ambiance. Her wind chimes were singing their magic songs.

The sunset now presented itself as a striking streak of fiery orange-red across the sky, turning the still water of the bay the same color. Caryssa took deep breaths of the jasmine-scented air, loving and living the moment. The tiki torch flames against the fiery sunset over the bay lit her senses, while the warmth from the fire touched her soul. The red wine she had bought from the little Italian shop paired perfectly with the simple finger foods she had chosen for starters, and with the salmon George had grilled to perfection. Everything was simple yet elegant.

She felt blessed that the quaint little soap and candle shop and the Italian grocery were less than a mile away. She let her eyes drink in the fire lit sky and bay, violet, amber, and rose.

“What are you thinking about, girlfriend?” Samantha asked. “You have that faraway look in your eyes.”

Caryssa shook her head as if to shake out the meditative thoughts, and focused again on her guests. “Oh, sorry you guys. I was basking in all this beauty. I guess I zoned out! What are you guys talking about? I thought I heard the word sex?”

“Oh, sex, what’s that?” Stan laughed. “You did hear the word! We were talking about how it is seemingly non-existent in our lives now, being married with young kids and all…”

“What?! Stan Gafferty talking about sex?!? I never thought I’d see the day!” joked Caryssa.

Stan was very private, more of an introvert than Caryssa was seeing in him tonight. “Give me a few glasses of vino, and anything goes! One more and I might let down my guard and tell you my life story!” he joked back.

“Really, though, who has energy left for sex?” he continued. The others nodded and murmured assent. “Seriously, I used to complain about an occasional sixty-hour work week. That sounds like half-time now, compared to taking care of two little ones! There seems to be no end of the week as a parent. We’re on call 24/7.”

“I know Stan has the toughest job between the two of us,” Stacy insisted. “I get to go sit in an office all day and can even pretend I am getting something done while hiding behind my computer. I honestly don’t know how he does it, and I don’t know if I could, in his place. Toughest job in the world.”

Stan laughed and reached out to stroke his wife’s shoulder. “Honey. Get a grip. You ‘hiding behind your computer’ is what pays the bills and keeps the roof over our heads. We’re in this together. And if the roles were reversed? The conversation wouldn’t even arise.”

“Well, when I go ‘back to work’ there will be prerequisites in order for me to accept the offer,” Caryssa chimed in. “The organization would have to be very flexible and understand that my child comes first. I am pretty sure not too many high tech businesses fits that mold, at least not the ones I’ve worked for! I loved working in corporate, but I don’t want to go back to the bottom-line atmosphere any time soon…and when I do it will be with a company that has a socially responsible bottom line!”

“Darlin’!” Stacy interjected. “You should look into nonprofits. They tend to be more family friendly. And you’d be giving back to society in a positive way.”

“I have,” Caryssa responded. “They do seem more family oriented… but so far the few I’ve spoken to need more hours than I am available to give, or most of the work can’t be done from home.”

“What about the option of getting back to the high tech sector, so you can make the big bucks you made, but working it out to do it from home, with a nanny?” Stacy asked. “You have over twenty years’ experience and are highly educated!”

“I do have a couple of friends I worked with at Unabridged Networks that do that…but they haven’t taken years off like I have. They stayed with it. So they are not viewed as obsolete dinosaurs of technology like I am!” Caryssa glanced over at her rather large Dell laptop. No tiny tablet for her. “Plus…it’s not where my passion is anymore. And…you know what? Truth is? Here’s the thing I can’t get past when I start to think about going back to work, even if it would help our family’s finances. I don’t want some overpriced nanny taking care of my child. I don’t want her being the one to see all his milestones, while I lock my soul away in some home office all day. The bottom line that I can’t seem to move past? My time with my son. Time that will never, ever come back if I waste it now. ”

“Yup. I know how you feel,” Stan responded. “And you know what? That high-tech industry we keep yearning for and regretting leaving? It isn’t exactly the hot pot it once was anyhow, from what I hear.”

“Omigod!” Sam chortled, taking a sip of her wine. “Wait! Girlfriend! Remember that cover letter you once typed for that high-tech company? It was so freaking funny! And most politically incorrect! Like you would ever get a job saying that to corporate!”

“Oh right!” Caryssa said. “We were having a glass of wine that happy hour evening. I showed you a printout of that job listing I found on the web. What was it? Oh yeah…Marketing Director for a high-tech startup. What a joke.”

They had laughed at the ridiculous list of unrealistic expectations regardless of background and work experience.

It didn’t matter if the candidate had twenty years of experience and an MBA or was just starting out. Positions paying fifty thousand dollars less than she had made over a decade ago, required ten flavors of redundant software and platform ‘expertise’ that had emerged into the market overnight. “Where’s your ‘online presence’ they ask.

She wanted to answer with a humorous “I moved to Silicon Valley over a decade ago to bring you any ’online presence.”

That was the moment Caryssa realized the industry had moved on and it wouldn’t matter how much of a powerhouse she had been before the birth of her son. She hadn’t kept up—couldn’t have. She was no longer “qualified.”

Even so, she knew from the job description that she had no desire to work there. So, she and Sam collaborated on a mock cover letter. With each glass of wine, they had gotten more and more creative, more and more in-your-face. It had been tons of fun. They set the tone exactly as if it had been written by a prospective employer. They reversed the power relations—the letter articulated the qualifications the company would need for her to work there.

After selling herself as to how she could single-handedly move the business forward with all her amazing proven results-driven marketing talents, she had listed the qualifications for any company she would join:

“Company must be highly family-friendly, must provide flex-time, must understand the mentality of ‘work to live, not live to work,’ must be flexible enough to allow an employee to work from home around children’s school schedule when needed. If you do not meet these qualifications, please do not respond, as I get inundated with calls from prospective employers.”

Sam loved it, but she was also a little nervous. After all, her friend’s career was at stake. “Caryssa. This is brilliant. And true. But are you sure you want to send this? You’re well known in the tech world. You’ve been gone for a while, but you still have a great reputation. Are you sure you want to risk that? What if someone in this company knows you?”

“Well, then I commit career suicide!” Caryssa had responded. “Honestly, girlfriend, right about now? I don’t care. Who knows, maybe my email will provide some much-needed humor in somebody’s day. I’d like to think I left them with a message: ’Hey there is life beyond these corporate walls!’ Ready? Cuz I’m gonna push Send.”

“Well, if you’re sure. Yeah. Okay,” Sam looked leery. “Just Do it!”

Caryssa pushed Send.

“Whatever happened with that?” Sam asked now, reaching for the newly opened bottle of white to pour herself a refill. “I forget. Did you ever hear from them?”

Caryssa snorted. “Are you kidding?! What do you think?!”

“Oh…yeah…” Sam replied, taking a sip from her fresh glass and looking out over the bay. “Duh, right?! My bad…”

“Why do jobs that help society more often generate less income?” Stacy asked. “Teachers, nurses, people like Jim who help children and other people through troubled times, and the environmental folks building sustainable community should be the ones making the huge six figures, double six figures!”

“I agree,” Stan replied. “Humanity would be in a better position if we paid the big bucks to the community organizers—”

“Exactly, for social campaigns that hold corporations and politicians accountable,” insisted Caryssa.

“Accountable for what?” asked Samantha. “There’s too long a list—”

“We can start with making those accountable for obstructing the change needed in how we create energy and deal with pollution,” added Stan. And those making destructive technology.”

“Oh, you mean like the so-called peacemakers? The ones making technology to help keep the rest of the world ‘inline’?” Caryssa shuddered inside just thinking of it.

“Whoa,” Stacy said. “Is this coming from the gal who worked in the high-tech world for so long? What you came to California for?”

“The technology I promoted wasn’t all destructive,” Caryssa retorted. “Disruptive maybe, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Silicon Valley is bringing innovation into education and leveling the playing field. Apple just gave an underserved school in our kid’s school district 300 iPads. It’s the destructive use of technology I object to.”

“I dunno…” Stan said. “I think maybe most technology should be questioned. Is it helping? For instance, now we have technology layered on top of the kids’ tests. They’re getting burned out. They’re just kids, after all. But now their grades become data points on a website. And any digital error could turn a hard-earned A into an erroneous D. It’s scary, really.”

“Well,” Caryssa slowly answered. “I kinda agree. Maybe it’s a matter of degrees and management. It’s true we need technology. I mean, it has shaped our lives, and in many ways made our lives better. For instance, thanks to modern medical technology, illnesses we once thought untreatable are easily cured. And the internet itself has been a technology marvel. All that information at our fingertips.” It was like she felt compelled to defend what brought her to California.

“Do I detect a questioning tone of voice? Like…perhaps we’ve allowed technology to get a tad bit out of control?” Stan raised a single eyebrow.

“You have a point there, Stan…I mean, doe’s anyone really need a refrigerator with a built-in LCD TV? Our cell phones do everything for us but burp and fart!” laughed Caryssa. “Texting causes more car accidents than drunk driving, never mind kids zoning out while texting and crossing busy streets and getting hit!”

“Folks!” Sam interjected. “I thought we were here for a light evening of socializing. Must we always solve the world’s unsolvable problems? Come on. Hey, Caryssa…didn’t you say you had special drinks for after dinner?”

“Oh! Yeah, I almost forgot! Usually, these would be pre-dinner cocktails, but we got so distracted with political satire. I’ve got lavender vodka martinis, with Ketel One. It’s in the freezer. Who wants one?”

Everybody raised their hands. They knew how wonderful the lavender was from Caryssa’s garden. The lavender, blending so calmly with the wind chimes.

“We might need to sleep over, though!” Stacy joked.

“No worries, honey, you know we have plenty of room, and the boys would LOVE a sleepover!” Caryssa responded. “What do you think, George?”

“Go for it.” George was doing a little dance in place, swaying to the music that switched from classical to rock. “How often do we do this? It’s a special night. Don’t hold back! But, you know what honey? How about if we take a break from saving the world?”

Caryssa leaned over him from the back, folded her arms around his chest, and kissed his neck. “Of course, sweetie. Everybody has worked hard this week. We’ve earned a break. We’re not going to fix everything tonight.”

Stan was having his own private thoughts. He felt inadequate when topics of careers came up. It was always an inevitable “So…you used to be a molecular engineer, right”? He was getting into the tech talk, wanted to move the topic onto his own vision of how to save the world from certain biochemicals he’d been subjected to. But the chance didn’t arise.

When Caryssa returned with a tray of lavender martinis, she saw that the energy in the group was even softer. The scent of lavender filled the air. The glow from the fire pit and tiki torches lit up everyone’s faces. In the distance, the lights on the bay shimmered and twinkled. She always talked about letting go, into the big heart of humanity. Why not let it go for now, and be in the moment with her friends.

And that is what she did.

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