Let your ‘fan’ flag fly

What started out as a niche club has become three days of costumes, comics and celebrities, known as Fandom Con.

“It all began out of Con-Quest, a club at University of West Florida five years ago,” said Fandom Con organizer Raven Martinez.

In its early days, the club would host a small convention in one of the buildings on the Pensacola college campus, but eventually the event grew beyond the space. So, it was brought to the Emerald Coast Convention Center.

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Inside one of the conference rooms, Martinez and her panel of judges get ready to see cosplayers — those who construct and design handmade character costumes. Each of the judges is dressed in their own elaborate designs and makeup.

“That’s my favorite part,” she said. “Being able to interact with everyone and seeing the costumes walk down the halls.”

The cosplayers enter, one by one, to show off their work. They’re judged in different categories, from craftsmanship to presentation. It’s those dedicated creators who make Fandom Con special.

“I’m already planning my trip back here next year,” said Gillian O’Daniel, who writes for Cos Couture.

The convention was also host to celebrities, such as Robert Axelrod of “Star Trek Voyager” and artists such as Philo Barnhart, who worked at Disney for nearly 20 years and helped develop concept art for “The Little Mermaid.”

“It’s wonderful to see the movie is still embraced,” Barnhart said as a line forms waiting for autographs. “There are kids watching the movie now that weren’t even born when it was released. It’s nice to see the film has longevity.”

Today, Barnhart is a comic book artist, working alongside Chicago-based comic book publisher, Charles D. Moisant.

“This is my first time ever to Fandom Con,” Moisant said. “It was worth driving down for.”

Getting to meet comic book fans is Moisant’s favorite part about attending conventions, he said as he signs a young woman’s knee while her friend takes pictures. Later, he gets up to put on his roller skates as he performs for the crowd.

At larger conventions, it’s more difficult to have these personal interactions, said O’Daniel.

“Here, there’s no anxiety; everybody is having a good time,” she said. “And you get to meet and talk to people — you make friends.”

For Jordan Keeling and Sarah Del Valle, coming to Fandom Con is like finding a local safe haven.

“When you’re a nerd, you stay inside a lot,” joked Keeling. “It’s cool to meet people with similar interests who live by you.”

“Everyone is a nerd in some aspect, but there’s always that stigma,” Del Valle added. “Here, you can embrace it.”

As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News 

Life After Appalachian Trail

Kyle Rohrig and his dog, Katana on Mt. Kinsman in New Hampshire.

Kyle Rohrig and his dog, Katana on Mt. Kinsman in New Hampshire.

After 195 days, 2,180 miles and countless stories, Kyle Rohrig finished the Appalachian Trail last month.

But coming back is an adjustment, he said.

“I hate to say it, but life is a little boring here,” he said.

On the trail, Rohrig went by the name The Mayor — all hikers get a name — and grew out his beard. Eventually he’ll shave it off, he said. And although he’ll look more like the Kyle before the trip, he came back changed.

“I’ll never go back to the way I was before.”

Before heading out, Rohrig said he had become burnt out on his daily routine and was thirsty for an adventure. With some money saved, he quit his job, moved out of his place in Navarre and started on his hiking journey with his dog, Katana.

From the backyard of his mom’s house in Mary Esther, he sits in his camping hammock and rubs Katana’s belly.

“Before the trail, it was all about trying to make money to buy new things — a car, a house,” he said. “On the trail I’ve learned that all you need is food, shelter and water. Everything else is bonus.”

Rohrig now plans to go back to school and look for work in the off-shore oil business, where he can enjoy fishing in his free time and travel with his extended days off. He’s already contemplating which trail he’ll plan for next — the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide. Both trails are larger than the AT.

Rohrig tracked his journey on his blog, Kyle the Catalyst, which he’s looking he’s looking to self-publish.

“It’s so weird now,” he said. “I’m stuck in that cycle of journaling things. I’m always taking notes and thinking ‘I could make a story out of that.’”

He even wants to write a book from Katana’s perspective. The dog was a big hit on the trail and has her own Facebook Fan page with more than 250 fans.

The books, Rohrig hopes, will be an inspiration to people, hikers or not, with handy advice for anyone looking to trek along the AT.

“For anyone who feels bored and trapped, like I was, I want them to be inspired to get out there and do it — to change their circumstances,” he said.

“I don’t want it to be a how-to book. I want the readers to learn and grow as I did.”

As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News 


The Wishing Tree

Visit facebook.com/Wishonatree

Visit facebook.com/Wishonatree

After a storm, Annastasha Larsen is busy picking up scattered white note cards from her front yard.

On the cards were hand-written wishes such as “I wish ‘home’ wasn’t so far away,” or “I wish to grow up to be a Major League Baseball player.”

These cards are part of The Wishing Tree, an interactive memorial Larsen created to honor the loss of her daughter.

“We wanted to do something to memorialize her and help with the grieving process,” Larsen said.

This past March, Larsen lost her second daughter, Poppy, when she started to go into labor at 20 1/2 weeks. The scenario was unfortunately a familiar one, since Larsen lost her first daughter, Daisy, in September 2012, after 18 1/2 weeks.

“When I was pregnant, preterm labor wasn’t something I was fully aware of,” said the 27-year-old. “Being pregnant is supposed to be a good thing. You bring life into the world. You have a lot of hope and excitement. But there’s a risk. There’s always been a risk.”

When Larsen was pregnant a second time, she said she wanted to enjoy it, although she did have some doubts.

Even after she lost her baby, she “powered through.”

“You have to have faith and hope,” she said. “I generally tend to strive to be more positive.”

In July, when her second daughter Poppy was due, she started The Wishing Tree leaving a small sign and a jelly jar of blank cards outside waiting for passersby to scribble their wish on. In just a few months, the tree had more than 100 wishes hanging along with dangling crystals.

As an artist, it only made sense that Larsen’s memorial would be creative and beautiful.

“I like the way they catch the light and create rainbows,” she said. “It’s symbolic since it connects heaven to Earth.”

Through The Wishing Tree, Larsen said her faith is restored every day.

“There are all sorts of wishes hanging,” she said. “There’s one — a sweet boy wrote ‘I wish for love.’ I was really touched by that.”

“What I like about it is that wishes — like birthday wishes — are supposed to be personal. You’re not supposed to tell people. But here they are.”

Encouraged by her sister, Larsen took the story of The Wishing Tree to Facebook, where even more people can interact by making a request for Larsen to write out their wish to hang on the tree.

“It’s taught me about serving and helping others,” she said. “It’s a healing place for everyone.”

While the tree is for wishes from all walks of life, Larsen hopes the tree can also be a place for healing for other women with similar experiences.

Earlier this month, in light of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, Larsen met with another women who had lost her baby to preterm labor.

“I have a place in my heart for people who go through this,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m thinking of them, even if I don’t know them.”

“It’s not just my story, it’s everyone’s story.”

After the windy thunderstorm Monday, one of the few note cards that remained on the tree read “I wish that I will have nice chedren,” in bubbly letters written by a child.

It’s a wish that Larsen has, too.

“We’ll see,” she said. “We could want all we want, but it’s out of our hands.”

“One day.”

As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News 

Obligatory Breast Cancer Awareness Stories

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Because we never get tired of learning from brave women (and men). Here’s the profiles I did for Northwest Florida Daily News.

‘I was more scared about surviving’

Life after surviving breast cancer was a big adjustment for Mackenzie Baughn.

In February 2011, at the age of 28, Baughn discovered a lump in her breast after a routine self exam.

After a biopsy, doctors found that Baugh’s cancer was a triple negative and growing aggressively. Being triple negative also made Baugh susceptible to ovarian cancer and for cancer to spread to her other breast.

And so a week after diagnosis, she decided to have a bilateral mastectomy and a hysterectomy to get rid of the aggressive cancer and to prevent it from coming back. This would mean Baughn would not be able to have the baby she and her husband were hoping to have one day.

“We were actually planning to try to have kids around that time,” she said. “But after the diagnosis, I was more scared about surviving.

“It was my choice. I wanted to make sure it would not come back.”

Baughn had her surgery and most treatments at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which was a long haul from her home in Navarre. Fortunately, she had a place to stay at the American Cancer Society’s Joe Lee Griffin Hope Lodge in Birmingham.

“They had free transport for my treatments, a private room and a common area for cooking,” Baughn explained. “During radiation, I had to stay for two months. I couldn’t afford it without the Hope Lodge.”

By October 2011, Baughn had finished her treatment. But she hasn’t forgotten the battle. She attends the twice-monthly Bosom Buddies support group at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center and is this year’s honorary chair at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.

As for kids, Baughn hasn’t given up on that dream.

“My husband and I are looking into adoption,” she said. “It’s funny, when my sister and I played with Barbie dolls, hers would always be pregnant and mine would adopt children. I guess I always thought that would happen.”

‘This is going to be my mission’

The year Donna Fought turned 40, she had her first mammogram and continued to do so every year.

But after a few yearly appointments, the Shalimar woman wasn’t so diligent. In fact, she even talked herself into keeping those appointments every two years, instead of one, until she lost complete track.

“I was 50 years old and decided to finally get a mammogram when the doctor found a large mass in my right breast,” she said. “Comparing films from previous mammograms was useless since my last one had been six years ago.”

Like so many cancer survivors, Fought remembers the day of her diagnosis — April 12, 2011. In the eight days between her diagnosis and mastectomy, Fought had a lot of emotions. One of them was guilt.

“I felt responsible,” she said. “My friends and family were a huge support system, but I felt guilty how much time I stole from them.”

After surviving breast cancer, Fought sees each new day as a bonus.

“You need to enjoy everyday to the fullest,” she said. “I have always been family-oriented, but now, I hold them closer.”

Paying it forward, Fought has donated her time to the cause by raising money with the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.

“The first one I went to was four months after my mastectomy,” she said. “I thought, what better way to end this horrible event?”

As Fought is currently undergoing reconstructive surgery, she continues to “fight for a cure” for her two daughters and granddaughters.

“This is going to be my mission. There’s no better cause. One in 8 women will be touched by breast cancer in their life. I don’t want them to go through this.”

‘Yes, men can get breast cancer’

When Dave Parisot felt a lump in his left breast back in July 2010, he knew what it was.

After watching his older sister and two nieces fight breast cancer, Parisot knew that men could be diagnosed, too. Although he never suspected it could be him.

“I had weight-loss surgery in February 2010,” he said. “After losing the fatty tissue, I could feel the lump.”

When Parisot went to the doctor, he found out the cancer was stage 2. In August, he had his mastectomy. He did not have to undergo chemo or radiation.

Perhaps the most difficult part of Parisot’s breast cancer battle was continuing his campaign for Okaloosa County Commissioner, but he didn’t let the diagnosis get in the way. He ended up winning the election and is still the District II commissioner.

“I had my surgery six days prior to the primary election,” he said. “When I was released from the hospital, I went straight to a campaigning event.”

Ironically, Oct. 1, the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, was when Parisot was told he was cancer-free. A few days later, he went public with his experience.

“Yes, men can get breast cancer,” he said. “People just aren’t aware. It is fairly rare. But I’m not the only male in the community. I’ve had other men come up to me to share their story after hearing about my experience.”

During the month of October, you’ll likely see him sporting one of his many pink ties and survivor pins. In the past, he was an honorary chairmen of the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk and was the first male to grace the cover of the “Emerald Lady Journal” for a breast cancer themed issue.

“I have more pink shirts than I’m probably supposed to have,” he said with a laugh.

About 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States every year, compared to more than 230,000 diagnosed women. Even though breast cancer is generally seen as a woman’s cause — even the ribbon is a stereotypical pink —  Parisot doesn’t shy away from embracing his survival story.

‘I don’t have time for cancer’

Jheri Bailey-Brown never had a mammogram.

“When I would go to the doctors, I would lie and say I was making my appointments, because I didn’t want to get yelled at,” she said. “But there’s not cancer in my family so I though, why bother?”

But two years ago when she felt a mass in her breast, Bailey-Brown knew it was cancer. It was a Thursday night, and she leaving town the next morning for a wedding in Louisiana.

“When we got back home, I made an appointment for that Tuesday,” said the Mary Esther woman. “By then, the lump had doubled in size and I started to feel one in my armpit.”

From that appointment, Bailey-Brown had her mammogram, was then sent for an ultrasound and finally a needle biopsy before the doctors told her what she already knew.

“I could tell by the way they were rushing around that it was serious,” she said. “I told the doctor, ‘I know you can’t tell me what’s going on, but tell me what you’re thinking.’ He said, ‘I think it might be cancer.’”

Within two weeks, Bailey-Brown was in surgery. At that point, her cancer was at Stage 3.

“I told the doctors, ‘I don’t have time for cancer,’”  she recalled.

After the diagnosis, Bailey-Brown wasted no time giving her daughter the lecture she avoided.

“The first thing I said to my daughter was ‘You need to take care of this,’” she said. “I learned it doesn’t matter if it’s in your family history or not. But now it is in her history.”

Through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Bailey-Brown used humor to cope. When she learned that 1 in 8 women would be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lives, she got a shirt that read “I took one for the team.”

“I never took it seriously, I couldn’t,” she said. “I would be home asking my kids to get me a drink of water, or asking my husband do get me a chocolate sundae at 11 p.m. If they protested, I would say ‘Come on, I have cancer.’”

After surviving breast cancer, Bailey-Brown said the lesson she learned was how to care for people.

“I had a neighbor, Dino, that I was close to,” she said. “But when he got cancer, I bailed. I didn’t know how to act. But I learned that when you’re sick, you’re still human. That’s why I never wanted anyone to treat me like a cancer patient.”

“Just treat me like Jheri.”

‘One Book, One Community’


Reading the same book is much like entering an exclusive club—even if said book is a widespread best-seller. It’s the sense of sharing the same experience that has sprouted book clubs all over the world.

However, a report by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) has found that less than half of the adult American population now reads literature.

While there are countless programs to encourage reading for youths, NEA came up with The Big Read to not only inspire more adults to pick up books, but to create meaningful discussions in 77 communities around the country, with Pensacola being one of them.

“The Big Read is essentially everyone reading the same book,” said Melissa Davis, senior librarian at West Florida Public Library. “One book, one community.”

As part of The Big Read program, participating communities could choose from 36 books to read. Classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Gatsby” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” made the list.

When it came time to choose a title for the Pensacola community, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien seemed like the perfect fit, Davis said.

The book is a collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The stories fictionally mirror O’Brien’s own experience as an infantryman in Vietnam.

“Living in a big, military community, this is a book that’s going to speak to local people,” Davis explained. “It’s a very good introduction to that time period and the Vietnam War.”

In a 1990 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” O’Brien said he generally turned away from most movies and books that depicted the Vietnam war.

“What’s important to me is language about the war and about the human heart,” he said in the interview. “I was never a very good soldier. I hated that war, and it’s now in the distant past. What’s in the present for me are the stories that have really in a way, nothing to do with the war. They’re set in the war, but they’re stories for me of friendships and ghosts and girlfriends and that kind of thing.”

Davis admitted that before applying for the grant to host The Big Read in Pensacola, she hadn’t read all of “The Things They Carried,” but said when she did pick it back up, it was difficult to put down.

“There is a balance between what is truth and fiction,” she said. “It’s also beautiful literature writing. To me, it immortalizes the characters. How can these guys be gone if we keep reading? They live in the pages of this book.”

Ninety copies of “The Things They Carried” are available in the West Florida Public Library System. Copies were also distributed to Pensacola’s Little Free Libraries.

If you’re one who likes to listen to books in the car or on while a walk, don’t worry—that counts too.

“I actually listened to the book,” Davis said. “It was an emotional experience to hear it come alive.”

Beyond just reading and discussing the book, the West Florida Public Library has teamed up with local organizations to truly make reading an interactive experience.

“We really believe reading is important, but we also feel that people can be isolated,” Davis said. “We really want everyone to be a part of the conversation.”

There are plenty of opportunities to engage just about every audience, from a dramatic performance at Pensacola Little Theater, movie screenings and even a public discussion with the author himself.

One message Davis said she hopes readers will take from the book is what it was like to experience the Vietnam War. Lectures at the University of West Florida will discuss not just Vietnam, but war in general.

“Vietnam might have been the last war to affect us all,” she said. “Everyone alive at that time remembers the draft and worrying about their family. Today, war is kind of distant.”

Organizers said they hope once The Big Read event ends on Nov. 20, participants will become a little more united.

“We want everyone to feel glad they took part of the events and walk away feeling a part of the community,” Davis said.

As seen in Independent News

Horsing Around


In keeping with tradition, Ballet Pensacola is beginning their performance season in a ghoulish manner.

For the past few years, the ballet company opened with “Dracula.” This year however, a new tale will be told with “The Headless Horseman” ballet.

“We have really created our own version of the story to make it the most effective for dance,” said Richard Steinert, artistic director for Ballet Pensacola. “I particularly liked the challenge of this, its feeling of Americana, and the opportunity to meld numerous different versions of ‘The Headless Horseman’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’”

Using a fairy tale as the inspiration for a ballet is fitting due to their shared magical elements, Steinert explained.

“When it comes to knowing if a story will translate into ballet, I can only say that I have learned to trust my instincts,” he said. “Everyone told me ‘The Matrix’ would never succeed as a ballet, and it is one of Ballet Pensacola’s biggest selling works. I think there is a story in most everything you say or do. Then it’s up to the skill the choreographer has to translate it to wordless speech.”

Beyond the magic of storytelling, creating an original ballet begins and ends with trust.

“Building ballets for a living is mostly about trusting your own voice—if you hear yourself clearly, chances are you can make others hear too,” Steinert said.

“The Headless Horseman” will be debuting at the second half of the evening, with the first half dedicated to pieces choreographed by Steinert’s wife, Ballet Mistress Christine Duhon and the grand pas de deux from “Don Quixote.”

“Christine and I toss around a number of ideas before we settle on one, and this slot of the season is always ripe with ideas for spooky type works,” Steinert said.

“I feel fortunate to work every day with my wife and my best friend,” he added. “We each bring our own ideas to the table, are each prepared to give up a little, get a little, and walk away with a product that is innovative and fits the desires of our audience.”

Six new dancers will be making their debut with Ballet Pensacola this season. Steinert said this year proves to have a “strong and provocative company.”

“This is a great group with strong voices, so I try and listen as I build ballets,” he said of the company. “It makes the ballets more real, more honest and gives the dancers a sense of ownership in the not just the performance, but the process as well. And if the process is true and strong, you have given the artists the best foundation you can to meet an audience with an open heart and willing soul.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters to take the stage opening night will be the horse-like structure created for “The Headless Horseman.”

Steinert, Duhon and Production Designer Lance Brannon work closely together when it comes to creating a full show.

When it came to choosing “The Headless Horseman” for the opening show, Steinert said he knew it would require some technical innovation. Luckily, Brannon is just the man to execute his vision.

“It’s great to work with a guy like Lance, who you can go to and say, ‘build me a fully articulated horse that can show emotion and can be ridden’ and know that he will do it,” Steinert said.

Small teasers of the horse Brannon created have made it to the ballet’s social media. In the company’s online video series titled “Life in the Mirror,” you can see a sneak peek of the structure that was built with PVC pipe.

“When I was told we were going to be doing ‘The Headless Horseman,’ my initial reaction was, ‘Then we’re gonna need a horse,’” Brannon said. “I was excited about tackling that challenge.”

When creating his design, Brannon took a cue from the Broadway production of “War Horse,” which featured a life-size horse puppet.

“As a designer, you always want what ever you are creating to be yours,” Brannon said. “However, I looked at their creation and saw that the basic design was solid and felt that there was no reason to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.”

Whether you’ve been anticipating the return of Ballet Pensacola productions or you’re a ballet neophyte, “The Headless Horseman” and accompanying repertoires are guaranteed to entertain you or maybe even spook you—tis the season after all. To get even more in the Halloween mood, audiences are invited to wear their best costumes.

“I do like to keep the opening season Halloween-ish,” Steinert said.

‘A Way of Life’


When Hughdon Holley took over the family farm in Baker, he was met with more troubles than triumphs.

Credit was hard to come by for a young farmer and his homemaker mom, but a loan from a Crestview bank helped put the farm in business.

“From there, we got started and it’s been going ever since,” Hughdon said.

Hughdon his wife, Joan, continued working on the farm while maintaining full-time jobs.

Even though they have both retired, they still wake up at 5 a.m. “when the coffee pot goes off,” Hughdon said.

By 6:30, they’re gathering produce, which Joan takes to the farmer’s market in Fort Walton Beach.

“Farming is a way of life, not just an occupation,” Hughdon said. “It gets in your system.”

The hard work has paid off. The Holleys were recognized Tuesday night as the 2014 Farm Family of the Year by the Okaloosa County Farm Bureau.

“It’s an honor,” said Joan. “We don’t get to actively farm as we used to, but we still love it.”

Nearly 50 years after Hughdon took over the farm from his father, it has grown to 200 acres of cotton, soybeans, fruits and vegetables. They also have honey bees, cattle and timber.

“It hasn’t always been easy — there have been some trying times,” Hughdon said. “But we’ve been very fortunate.”

Today, locally-grown food and sustainability has become a trend, even in the subdivisions an hour away from the Holley’s Beaver Creek community farm. They love seeing young people are involved in growing their own food.

“So many people don’t even have an inkling where their food is coming from,” Hughdon said. “They think it came from Wal-Mart. I’m glad to see a big demand for local produce.”

The farm has become a complete family effort with Hughdon and Joan’s two sons, their wives and five grandchildren helping out.

Hughdon said he hopes his children continue to carry on the legacy.

“There’s not too many young farmers around. They all got old.”

As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News