writer, teacher, traveler, and lazy gardener

Category: Fiction

Who’s Behind the Public Persona?

As more and more celebrities, cultural figures, influencers, and people in general, depict themselves online, I wonder how true those portrayals are. Are they facets of their real selves or are they playing into carefully crafted roles? Or a little of both?

The Goddess

It starts with the voice. A girlish timbre, a charming sing-songing cadence when she gets excited. It’s infectious, it makes you smile, it pulls you in. But what really gets everyone, and that means, everyone … her voice oozes compassion. She gets you, she has been there, she understands. You want to wrap yourself in her voice. It comforts, it soothes, and most of all, it loves you.

For behind the voice is someone who has lived through trauma, tragedy, and heartache. Who has taken all these experiences and transformed them into a life of wisdom and grace. It is a life overflowing with material success and ceaseless generosity. It is a life that many admire, that many envy.

Then there is her beauty. The moment you see her you can’t help but be enthralled by the thick hair, cascading over her shoulders, glass-skin complexion, dark deep-set eyes and full mouth. Her facial symmetry is mathematically exquisite. Her beauty is overpowering. No one is immune to it.

The woman is a goddess. Is it a surprise to anyone that her name is Athena? The goddess of wisdom and war. This Athena goes to war all the time. She is fighting for you.

With no fanfare, no introduction, for she needs none, Athena strides to the center of the stage. She is flanked by two large screens, projecting her larger-than-life image. The auditorium is at full capacity, six-thousand plus people jump to their feet. As the standing ovation rumbles on, she appraises the audience. Her smile warm and serene.

She wears a midnight blue jumpsuit, the monochrome color and long lines of the garment accentuate her 5’8” height, shapely silhouette, and short sleeves reveal defined arms. Many women in the crowd make mental notes to start working out the second they get home.

The venue is comprised of men, women, and young adults, from the entire socio-economic and ethnic spectrum. This is the second of three free events that Athena is offering. All are welcome. And all do come. She can afford to put on the free events each quarter; her regular corporate clients, the online academy, her books, media appearances, and pricey, bi-monthly retreats, more than make up for the costs.

The applause dies down, the audience settles into their seats. Wearing an imperceptible headset, artfully woven into Athena’s hair, she says, “Welcome to ‘Change Your Story: Change Your Life.’” As her voice floats across the auditorium, a hormonal rush of oxytocin surges through the audience, causing palpable feelings of giddiness, wonder, and excitement. Some begin to tear up, so overwhelmed by what is about to happen, what they expect to happen.

The stage is bare except for two burgundy-colored club chairs, which have been angled toward each other. Between the chairs is a small table with a pitcher of water, two glasses, and a thin stack of index cards. Athena sits down. She reaches for the top card and reads it, “Will Raymundo N., please come up and join me.”

Polite applause as a man in his mid-forties, stocky, intimidating buzz cut, and ram rod straight posture, walks down the aisle to the stage. He takes the empty seat. His face is creased with pain and something torturous.

“Good evening, Raymundo,” Athena says.

“You can call me Ray,” he says with a rasp.

“Ok, Ray … what brings you here tonight?”

“I want to change my story,” he says, eyes shining with emotion.

She leans toward him and lets the full power of her voice, and her confidence, born out of countless interactions, envelope him with the assurance he so desperately needs. “I will help you.”

Taylor and Makenzie burst into the palatial suite at the Four Seasons. Both in their early thirties, big toothy smiles, and high energy bordering on mania.

“The best show ever,” squeals Taylor.

“Oh my god,” Makenzie squeals back at an even higher volume. “When the guy with the super weird co-dependent thing with his sister revealed that he tried to smother her with a pillow when she was a baby —”

“— did you hear the audience. They died! … I died.”

“Me too!”

“I kept thinking, how the fuck is she going to handle this?” Taylor marvels.

Makenzie shakes her head. “Yeah, people’s lives are so messed up.” Then she brightens. “But our girl did it. She turned that shit around and …” She sighs with relief, hand clutching her heart. Something occurs to her. She looks about and realizes the living room is empty. It’s also in immaculate condition, unlived in. She looks at Taylor. Something telepathic passes between them.

Suddenly, they’re racing through the rooms, both calling out, “Athena, are you here?”

No one is in the bedroom, but there are signs of human intervention. The jumpsuit is on the floor in a crumpled heap. Their lithe bodies sag with relief. Taylor picks up the garment and surveys the floor for any more clothing cast-offs. “Get the laundry bag,” she says, motioning to the built-in armoire.

Makenzie does as she is told, produces a large mesh bag and stuffs the jumpsuit inside. She spots a thong, twisted into unrecognition under a silver metallic sandal. Puts it in too.

The sound of a door opening catches their attention. Athena emerges from the bathroom wearing the hotel’s plush bathrobe. Hair wet, make-up free, she has showered off the sheen of perfection.

As if something is unleashed, the superlatives pour out of the pair.

“You were amazing —”

“The emotion, the drama, you’re changing lives —”

“You are healing humanity —”

“You are the goddess —”

Athena wearily holds up her hand, silencing them. She sits at the edge of the king-size bed, her posture rounding forward. All the alacrity she had exhibited on stage thirty minutes ago is gone. She looks depleted, she looks different. As if by magic or a cruel trick, Athena barely resembles who she is supposed to be.

This transformation is happening more and more often. For along with Athena’s dull eyes and low affect, comes talk about “shutting the whole thing down” and doing something else like “escape to a beach in Ibiza.” Taylor handles this line of talk the only way she knows how. She responds with a few sympathetic mews about the burden of responsibility when one is a self-actualization icon. Then she proceeds to behave like the conversation never happened. In other words, she ignores it.

Taylor has worked with high-profile clients before and in her experience, she knows they don’t really mean it. One second away from the attention and adoration, they crumble, their lives empty and meaningless, they only exist as a designed and orchestrated persona. A Cartesian version for the age of celebrity: I exist in the public eye; therefore, I am.

Athena’s mouth tightens as if coiling, about to strike with words Taylor does not want to indulge anymore. So, she overwhelms her with an admin update.

“Ok,” Taylor says cheerfully while pulling out her phone. “For tomorrow, we’ve got the planning meeting for the Google leadership seminar. Then lunch with your publisher about the new book —”

“— new book?” Athena snarls. Her effervescent voice replaced by an angry vocal fry. “I just delivered the new fucking book. They already said they loved it.”

Makenzie pipes in. “They mean the next new book … after this new book. They’re already planning for that release.”

“Fantastic, more planning.” Athena grumbles. “Is this meeting at least over lunch? My energy is so slow these days. All these events and the stress, and trying to concentrate while I’m absorbing everyone’s pain and anger … when all I want to do is lump the whole thing —”

“— no wonder your energy’s flagging,” Taylor reacts, cutting her off. She dares not let Athena’s thoughts spiral down the negativity drain. “All that empathy burns calories like crazy!”

Makenzie picks up on Taylor’s distraction technique and lunges for the phone. “I’m calling room service. What would you like?” She punches the speed dial.

Athena turns to her underling and takes a moment to digest the question. She then replies, “Ribeye, rare, a cheese and charcuterie platter … a bottle of Zin.”

Makenzie looks to Taylor for approval, who ever so slightly shakes her head. Athena typically does not drink during events. She likes to keep her empathic senses and pathways open especially when engaging and changing the lives of her public.

Taylor notes her desire for wine. It is a good barometer of Athena’s mental disposition. She realizes she must take a different approach to her troubling malaise. She says carefully, “Maybe have the Zinfandel after we’ve wrapped up tomorrow night. In fact, let’s throw a wrap party.”

“Yeah, a wrap party! That would be awesome,” says Makenzie, interrupting the food order. “I’ll take care of everything.” She goes back to her room service call. “So that’s a ribeye, rare, charcuterie platter. Also, add two quinoa salads with baby greens, hold the chicken, with extra aioli and one super chunk brownie.”

“Make that two,” Taylor calls out. She turns to Athena. “You want one?”

Athena looks at her with scorn. “You know I don’t eat chocolate. Too many oxalates.”

“Right,” says Taylor, a bit relieved that at least Athena is sticking to her dietary regime, minus the booze request. Things are not nearly as bad as they first seemed. She flashes Makenzie two fingers, who then amends the brownie order. She turns back to Athena, confident that she’s back in control of the situation. “So the wrap party … you up for it?”

Athena sighs. “Instead of a wrap party … why don’t we just cancel the rest of the year. Make it a good-bye party.”

Taylor’s even demeanor belies the klaxons going off throughout her nervous system. Okay, if Athena wants to go there, let’s go there, she thinks. She turns her phone to Athena, then calmly scrolls through the calendars for the coming months. “You are booked to the end of the year. The Aspen retreat, the one in the Berkshires, the J.P. Morgan interpersonal development executive seminar … you are the main event. Plus all the appearances and meetings in-between. If you don’t show —”

“— then what happens? The world stops turning?” Athena flounces back onto the bed, drapes an arm across her face to hide from it all.

Taylor sits next to Athena. “No … but your world might.”

She and Makenzie exchange a steely look. The two women both know where this is heading, and it’s a calculated risk that must be taken.

“Is that what you want, Athena?” asks Taylor in a sympathetic tone that comes quite close to sounding like Athena’s caring voice. “If you do, we can totally make that happen. Just say the word.”

Taylor and Makenzie hold their breath, waiting for Athena’s response. The ticking seconds are interminable.

Athena lets the arm covering her face fall to the side. She pushes herself upright. Smiling wanly, she pats Taylor’s knee. “You know I don’t want that.”

Taylor nods and out of the corner of her eye sees Makenzie suppress a grin. “So, we good?”

Athena stares off, considering something. Taylor and Makenzie brace themselves again for whatever mortar may be lobbed their way.

She refocuses on them. “Can we reduce the free events to two nights rather than three and cut the overall dates by half?”

“No problem,” says Taylor. “We haven’t locked in the venues for the back half of the year …” She looks to Makenzie for input.

“We can stick to the 1st tier markets and cut the 2nd tier,” confirms Makenzie.

Athena begins to show an uptick in energy. “Then we’re good.”

“Great,” says Taylor.

“Awesome,” chirps Makenzie.

“For the party,” says Athena, color coming back to her face, “let’s have it in my suite. Get a case of that Zinfandel from that winery in Sonoma with the two vines, old vines … you know the one. Invite our people and everyone from the venue … especially that cute stage manager … Jeff.”

“I think his name is Josh,” corrects Makenzie, who taps the name into her phone. “Cute stage manager is on the list.” She smiles up at Athena, who has drifted back into the bathroom.

“I need to put on a face mask. Let me know when my steak’s here.” After that last directive, Athena shuts the door.

Catastrophe averted, the pair collapse into each other’s arms. Their stress and tension about to explode into a fit of giggles. They shush each other and tiptoe away from the bedroom suite into the living room.

Taylor checks the time on her phone. “Now where are those goddamn brownies.”

Aloe vera, manuka honey-infused, ultra moisturizing. I can’t decide, as I look through the box of face masks. While they each advocate different skin conditioning benefits, I think they’re all the same, so I just pick the one with the pretty flowery packaging.

Before applying, I study myself in the bathroom mirror. The lighting in here is warm and flattering. It makes me look not as tired as I feel. And I feel so tired. Tired of all of it. I want to quit … but I can’t quit. I have become an enterprise, an entity, a construct that has become something to too many. People are relying on me: to fix them, heal them, mother them, love them.

Taylor and Makenzie work hard to keep the machine on track. That’s why I employ them, to keep things running, to keep me running. For without this … What would I do? What would be my purpose?

I once knew, but as I’ve gotten further away and more removed from who I really am, my sense of self has slipped away. I stopped paying attention to me … or the me at the time. I have only been existing to serve the Goddess. One thing is for sure: the real me, whoever that is, is not a goddess.

The face mask is a slimy, white membrane. The eyes, nose and mouth openings align with my features, and I smooth out any creases. I look like a chic burn victim.

Complaining and threatening to end the empire I’ve created is a hollow exercise. If I’m honest with myself, I’m afraid to find out what lies beneath. What if there’s nothing? The thought gives me a slight cramp in my chest. At some point, I too will have to change my story. Just not today. I’m way too tired, and very hungry.

There is a soft knock at the door. “Athena, food’s here,” calls out Makenzie.

“Finally,” I mutter, and fling the door open. All smiles beneath my mask.

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Being vs Doing: Is There a Difference?

During the past few years I've been learning how to draw, using traditional and digital tools. Here are a few images to go with my latest short story.

The Cosmic Ocean

What started out as a father-daughter thing turned into Kalani’s obsession. Growing up in the North Shore of Oahu, a surfing mecca, seven miles of coastline with breaks for beginners to Class-A pros, many surfer parents wanted their children to develop a kinship with the ocean. It was for fun and play but it had to be respected. It could also drown you. In a snap.

This education would start when they were merely babies. They’d be carried into the surf to feel its power, its primal energies, as the frothy waves lapped at their kicking feet. Some babies screamed, “danger, danger,” their tiny brains shot signals throughout their bodies as they tried to wriggle away. These parents quickly retreated to the shore. Their child wasn’t ready. Too much too soon. They’d try again later, or maybe not at all. They’d let the child decide when the time was right, when the relationship with the ocean could begin.

Not Kalani. At one year old, she didn’t scream when her father, Cris, led her into the surf. She laughed and laughed. Her chubby arms reached into the water, splashing. Her round little face lit with joy. Her father looked back at the shore where his wife, Malia, and Kalani’s mother watched, and flashed her a wide smile. They both knew Kalani would be a surfer.

More impressive than Kalani’s early surfing skills — at four she could easily pop up on her board and ride a small wave into shore — was her affinity with the ocean. She learned how to feel its ebbs and flows, how to count wave sets, predict its moves.

And when she got it wrong, the wave did something unexpected, closed out on her, tossing her into the powerful depths, she didn’t fight the agitating action. She went with the flow of the wave’s energy, rocking and rolling, until the time was right to break free of its grip, and suck in air. Throughout her childhood, every free moment was spent surfing. First one in, last one out.

By the time Kalani was sixteen, surfing was no longer this cool activity she was good at. It was part of her being, her emotional retreat. As she glided over the blue glass, velocity building, all distracting grievances about her parent’s divorce, high school cliques, late homework, her untamable hair, boys! … she’d find herself in the wave’s pocket, entering the cosmic ocean of no thinking, no worries, and no ego.

Once she trotted out of the water, board under her arm, everything would come flooding back to her. But it was mostly her ego which took hold, a competitive nature that she picked up from her over-achieving Japanese-Filipino mother (one of Hawaii’s top cardiologists, no surprise there!), rather than her “hang loose” Filipino-Hawaiian father. Unlike her mother, competition was always with herself.

She wanted to improve her surfing skills, take on bigger waves, and be in the cosmic ocean longer. She watched the sponsored amateurs on the verge of turning pro that would come to experience the many North Shore breaks, and asked for their advice. Many were only too happy to impart their wisdom to a teenager, with eager brown-eyes, caramel-colored skin, and a smile that could melt a taciturn soul. Cris kept a sharp protective watch over Kalani. He knew what was on their minds at that age, what they thought, about pretty surfer girls.

One evening Kalani went down a cyberhole. She had discovered big wave rider Laird Hamilton. She read every online article about him, watched every documentary, featuring him ride the most dangerous, massive waves from Tahiti to Portugal. She absorbed YouTube videos about his breathing techniques, ice bath training, and underwater weight lifting regime. She lobbied her father to send her to Malibu to take Laird Hamilton’s 3-day training experience.

 “You want to be like Laird Hamilton?” asked Cris, brows knitted together in a frown. “You want to die?”

“Laird hasn’t died,” shot back Kalani.

“Not yet.”

Kalani rolled her eyes.

“Besides, Laird’s a big dude. Have you seen the video where he’s dragging a log? With his neck?! You’re barely one hundred pounds. No way can you control a big wave.”

“It’s not about the big waves.” Kalani sighed. “I want to be better. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” Cris said “Being better at what you do is always good …”

Kalani stared at her father, waiting for more. Finally, he said carefully, “You want to compete? Is that what this is about? No more school, no college, you’ll just surf your whole life?”

 “Dad, don’t be so dramatic,” she answered fast. “I’m not talking about planning out my whole life. I just want to be better, to shred it up.”

Cris looked like he was mulling it over, but Kalani knew he had already made up his mind.

She said, “If I can’t train with Laird Hamilton, then how about I get a coach?”

“I am your coach,” Cris snapped. “I’m not good enough for you anymore?”

A faint smile tugged at the corner of Kalani’s mouth. Cris had his answer.

So that’s what her father did. Cris asked Terry, an old surfing buddy to watch Kalani surf.

A retired military man, Terry now ran a surf camp for rich kids who came to Hawaii for vacation with their parents. Cris believed Terry had the chops and tough-love temperament to take on his strong-willed daughter.

One Saturday morning Kalani stumbled out of the water after getting pummeled by a gnarly wave. She shook her head to eject the water from her ears. Terry had been on the shore, watching her the entire time.

“Not bad,” Terry said. “The timing of your cutbacks are lagging. That’s why you ate it. But otherwise, not bad.”

She eyed him with suspicion as she took in his faded board shorts, and ratty tee. Who was this old geez to critique her?!

Terry pushed his sunglasses on his head. He revealed the sun-crinkled skin around his hazel eyes.

“Who are you? asked Kalani.

“Your new coach.”

Under Terry’s guidance, Kalani improved fast! Her cutbacks were smoother, and better timed. She could pull into an overhead barrel with no problem. She rode the line longer, bolder, and faster … deeper into the cosmic ocean she went.

 Buzz about her started to develop. Terry had been sharing videos of Kalani surfing on social media as promos for his surf camp. Her videos were getting tons of hits. The bookings for his camp were blowing up, and Terry was stoked.

“Get your own Instagram account,” Terry encouraged. “We can tag each other.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Kalani said with obvious derision.

Terry looked at her like she just said the dumbest thing. “Oh, I don’t know. Get a massive following, attract sponsors and shit, which you know, you need when you wanna turn pro.”

For a quiet moment, she allowed herself to imagine that reality. Becoming a pro. What would that involve? For Kalani, surfing was always about being rather than the doing. Now it would become a process: strategies to enact, expectations to meet, people to satisfy, competitions to enter, feelings to manage, followers to amass … her relationship with the ocean would never be the same.

Kalani smiled at Terry and said nothing. She grabbed her board and walked back into her cosmic ocean.

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