Thursday, December 11, 2014

Time for one last cup before they go

Robbie and Ellen
PANAMA CITY — I had coffee with Robbie Fehrenbach and Ellen Mapelsden on Thursday morning, and we talked about the little shop they opened in St. Andrews in 1998.

St. Andrews Coffee House will close its doors Dec. 20, although Robbie and Ellen assure longtime customers and friends that the new owner, James Pigneri, will reopen under a slightly changed name and menu in early January 2015. (Stay tuned to and these pages for details when the St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro will debut.)

“We can’t wait,” Ellen said of Pigneri’s reopening. “We plan to come here for good coffee and a good meal.”

The duo once told me they opened the shop “on a dare.” They said in front of the wrong people that “somebody ought to do something” in St. Andrews, and that someone pointed out they were somebody, too.

“For us, it was a means to an end,” Robbie said, that end being to revitalize their beloved St. Andrews community. “Over the years, it has made us so busy that we have much less time for community involvement.”

Their grandfather, Ed Day, arrived in St. Andrews in 1887 as a child. The building the coffeehouse occupies was built in 1927. Great Uncle Bill opened Gainer Brothers’ Grocery there, and their Aunt Weezie cut meat in the same spot where they now make sandwiches.

They enjoy “doing everything” from taking orders, to cooking, to serving tables, to running the register, Ellen said. But as business has grown, doing everything has become more difficult.

“We opened a little coffee shop, and it’s turned into a food place,” Robbie said. “It’s a faster pace than we can keep up. It’s growing, and it needs to grow, and for that it needs a new set-up.”

Recent years have seen a “younger demographic” frequent the area, including families and young professionals, and that makes them hopeful their work is bearing fruit.

“We’re so excited that our baby has grown up, and it’s going to continue,” Ellen said. “It’s time to pass the torch.”

The Coffee House will open regular hours for its final week in this incarnation, and will run a special fundraiser on its final day. From 7 to 11 a.m. Dec. 20, a minimum $5 donation will get you a drink and a simple breakfast item (no eggs or regular breakfast menu will be served). Every penny of the day’s proceeds will go to Lucky Puppy Rescue and Castaway Cats.

“It will be a little send-off and a little fun,” Ellen said.

I will miss Robbie and Ellen. I meet with friends for lunch at the shop each week, and was honored when I’d become enough of a fixture for them to know my “regular” order. They labeled us the “Marvels” and reserved our table with a sign they fashioned using a toy Batmobile.

“It’s bittersweet. We wanted to leave it when it would be hard to leave, not when we were tired of it. So it’s a good thing,” Ellen said. “Robbie and I are actually starters. When we started with this, we had no idea we’d still be doing it all these years later.”


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Taking candy from strangers

PANAMA  CITY — My parents taught me never to take candy from strangers. My children heard the same rule as they were growing up.

Monday, I broke that age-old imperative.

Entering the downtown Post Office, I joined a queue of people waiting for their chance to do business with one of the two clerks. Up ahead, I saw an older gentleman in a denim shirt and cap shaking a woman’s hand. She had a confused expression, and I saw him pass something to her during the handshake.

He moved on to the person ahead of her in line, and she opened her right palm to examine the mint candies he had given her. Little white-and-red swirls of  sugar wrapped in cellophane.

I wondered then if she was leery of accepting candy from a stranger, and I counted myself lucky to be entering behind him so I didn’t have to make that same decision.

“May I shake your hand?” I heard him ask the person in front of her. They shook hands, and he passed some more candy in the handshake.

He continued in this way to the front of the line, then spoke to the clerks, who appeared to know him. He turned to a young man who had stepped out of the line when a third clerk appeared to ask if anyone was there for General Delivery. He asked if he could shake the young man’s hand, but the guy held up a mint and said, “You did already, thank you.”

I saw the old man notice me at the back of the line, then. He started my way, and I wondered what my response would be when he asked. I hoped nothing smart-alecky would erupt, unbidden, out of my mouth. I looked up at the boxes wrapped in shiny Christmas paper on the walls and part of me hoped he would just bypass me.

But he rounded the kiosk of Priority Mail envelopes and extended his right hand. I spotted the candy wrappers peeking out.

“May I shake your hand?” he asked in an accent from the woods where I grew up.

“Sure,” I said. He gave my right hand a friendly tug, pressing two pieces of candy into my palm as he did so. I said thank you, then I asked how he was doing.

He almost turned away, then he looked up at me from under the bill of his cap.

“Not so great, if I’m still here and not in heaven,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

I smiled as if I understood, but my true emotions were conflicted. I looked at the candy in my hand, then back at him as he opened the door and stepped through, shaking his head and repeating, “I am ready to go.”

It occurred to me to question if one should eat candy that came from a man who’s anticipating the afterlife so eagerly. But I unwrapped the cellophane and popped a piece in my mouth anyway.

It was sweet, and minty, and smelled like Christmas days visiting my great-grandfather. He always kept mints in the house — old-fashioned ones that melted in your mouth. And then I recalled this older fellow at Century First Baptist Church who would give the kids at the evening service mints or butterscotches when I was little. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, and it was a sweet recollection.

I looked over my shoulder and saw the old man talking to someone in the main lobby, reaching out to shake hands.

Some days, like this old guy, I’m not doing so great. But I’m not yet ready to go. And so long as strangers can still offer a handshake, a smile, a gentle word — maybe even a candy mint — I’m not sure I should be in any great hurry.

Maybe, at my age, it’s okay to take candy from strangers. Maybe, in specific circumstances, we should be willing to take the chance.

Or maybe all of us in the Post Office that morning just got lucky and shared a little Christmas miracle.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Artist's Touch: Art in the Family

Sarah, Theresa, Taylor and Craig Bush at Floriopolis
PANAMA CITY — Craig Bush described his family as “unconventional” during a recent conversation at Floriopolis gallery.

“We all tend to be nonconformist,” he said. “We don’t listen very well.”

What they do well is pursue their muses. Craig, 64, is a retired educator, novelist and painter. His wife, Theresa, 62, is a retired paralegal, jeweler and crafter. Their daughters — Sarah, 36, and Taylor, 29 — are artists working in acrylics, ink and other mediums.

All four gathered on the couch and chairs at Floriopolis to talk about the way art is part of their lives, both as a family and as individuals.

“I was poor growing up, so there wasn’t a whole lot I couldn’t do,” Theresa said. “I still feel that way. I was taught if you want it, then you do it. You make it. I made things because I needed to have them.”

Theresa in her workshop.
Theresa has sewed and made crafts all her life, but retirement gave her time to focus on creative pursuits. After taking an Education Encore class on jewelry design at Gulf Coast State College, she discovered a love of jewelry making — though she wears almost none herself. She also does stained glass art, baskets, felt figures and more.

Her work is for sale at Floriopolis, RTA Designs, and Shipwreck Ltd., but she hopes to do more online sales in the new year. Her store is Four Free Spirits.
“I don’t want to make a lot of money, I  just want to make stuff and get rid of it so I can make more stuff,” Theresa said. Sarah responded, “I want to make enough (money) to replace my low-level job.”

Art by Sarah Bush
Craig said Sarah was in middle school when they all recognized her artistic bent. Her successes encouraged the rest of the family to “kind of dabble” in art more. But Sarah recalls always having art in their home.

“That’s what you do in life. You make stuff,” Sarah said. “When I was little, Pop would write messages in symbols and have me decode it, and that’s a lot of what I do now with iconography, symbology and archetypes. ... My parents have always been creative, as long as I can remember. Even my grandmother was always making a quilt or sewing something.”

When Sarah was in daycare, Craig would walk her home in the afternoons. They collected pieces of colored glass on the roadside each day and glued them to a length of driftwood.

“It’s still hanging on our wall today,” he said. “It’s a little bit bizarre.”

Sarah received an art scholarship to Gulf Coast State College, but kept taking art labs instead of other core courses. After some time focusing on drawing and “building sturdy things,” Sarah said she’s trying to go back to “actually painting.” Her work is online at

Art by Taylor Bush
Taylor said Sarah was her early inspiration, and she took the same classes with the same teachers Sarah had. Taylor creates black-and-white designs and is looking into making prints, fabric designs and possibly T-shirt images, mass producing some of her drawings.
Craig’s debut novel, “Hometown,” was released this autumn, and he’s just completed the first draft of his next novel, “The Ninth Rainbow,” which he hopes to publish in early 2015. “It’s somewhat apocalyptic, but it ends up with a lot of hope,” he said.

Of the creative process, Craig said he follows where the characters lead him: “I often don’t have a clue what they’re doing. When it’s best for me, I can’t type fast enough to keep up with it.”

Craig also paints impressionistic landscapes that he describes as “a little bit Van Gogh-ish.” He has never tried selling any of his paintings, adding that “none of us is great at marketing ourselves.”

As a child, Craig’s imagination was encouraged by a teacher who gave him a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein. But reading Herman Hesse in the 1960s made him want to be a writer. He studied journalism in college before shifting to education.

Craig at his writing desk.
“With the novel release, I think I had the right expectation, which was no expectations,” Craig said. “It’s shown me the importance of people in the arts being willing to help one another. It’s not a competition.”

The children have their own places now, but Theresa still had some trepidation about how Craig’s retirement could cut into her creative time. Over the years, each of them has learned to value a level of solitude, but she said it took “some adjustment” when he began staying home all day.

“I think we all appreciate our alone time a lot,” Taylor said, adding that the creative process requires solitude as well as preparation and openness. “Sometimes it’s sort of like a transmission from the universe, and you’re there to catch that. I think that’s the point of the whole thing. It’s super magical.”

Too early to tackle the tree?

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Say what you will about people who play Christmas music “too early” or put up their trees and other decorations before Thanksgiving. I’ve probably said something similar, myself, in the past.

But our Christmas tree was up last Sunday, which is early, even for us. Earlier, still, in context to the trees of my youth.

Once upon a time, my sister and I would accompany our parents to a tree farm somewhere outside of Century, Fla. , to walk rows of cedar and pick out a likely candidate. Once we got it chopped down, loaded onto the car, and lugged back home, Dad would trim low branches and prep the base for bringing it indoors.

Invariably, our cat or dog would drink from the water in the base. (These days, we only worry about a cat chewing an electric cord while climbing the metal limbs.) I remember Dad wrapped the lights, and Mom was in charge of icicles. I was in charge of dropping the fragile glass ornaments and then stepping on the slivers. It was a holiday tradition.

Once, I went with my uncle to pick up a pre-cut tree from one of many stores that had them leaning outside the entrance. On the drive home, he saw another store that had nicer trees, and stopped in to swap his out. Still trying to figure out how that worked.

These trees, already well on the way to dying by the time they came in the door, didn’t have a long window for use. At most, with a gas heater running 10 feet away, they’d last about a week. And even then, the last few days before Christmas would require wearing shoes in the living room to avoid getting prickly pine needles in your feet.

My pragmatic Grandma Simmons had an aluminum Christmas tree that she used for — I don’t know — decades? So I didn’t sneer at the advent (see what I did there?) of fake plastic trees some years later; it was just a tree of a different color.

Since establishing our own home(s), we have had several of these artificial firs over the years. We purchased our most recent tree from a friend’s garage sale. It’s about 7 feet tall and has built-in lights.

We put it together last Sunday, in part because we wanted to test the lights, but mostly because it will make our Thanksgiving Day (if we can wait that long) decorating party that much more fun — no wasting valuable decorating time having to lug the box out of the garage and putting it together when we’re ready.

Plus, we get to enjoy the lights a little longer.

Since moving into our current home, we’ve put up two Christmas trees each season. The one downstairs carries our collections of pop culture ornaments, and I have put up Grandma Simmons’ old tree in our bonus room at the top of the stairs, loading it with little handmade ornaments our kids brought home from school over the years.

This year, the upstairs will house our older fake plastic tree (the one that used to stand downstairs). We’ll decorate it with pink ornaments in memory of my sister-in-law, who died Sept. 12 of complications while under treatment for leukemia. My wife picked out the ornaments, and it was her idea to put up the second tree.

Our trees have always held objects of deep emotion and memory, from the faded plastic reindeer that Grandma Simmons gave me as a child (and that my father enjoyed as a child), to the Scarlet O’Hara ornaments we bought for Grandma Massey’s tree (and inherited upon her passing), to the “Joy” ornaments we hang in memory of our child-in-spirit, who died too young.

That’s the importance of these things, after all. Not when they go up or come down, but what you do with them while they’re here. The memories made by the light of the tree, the people recalled, the love never lost.

But then, that’s the important part of anything, isn’t it?


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Seeing, believing more closely related than you know

PANAMA CITY BEACH — I wasn’t winking at you, if that’s what you thought as we passed in the store this week. Honest.

I was just testing my vision. I thought something was wrong with my right eye.

It happened when I was helping my son locate the correct windshield wipers for his car, and pulled my glasses from my jacket pocket so I could read the guidebook attached to the store shelf. With my glasses on, nothing came into focus — in fact, my sight was worse with them on.

I closed my left eye, and my right seemed useless, just a blur. I closed my right eye — and suddenly I could see clearly with my left one. With both eyes open, though, everything once more became a blur.

“Something’s wrong with my eye,” I said, and I must admit to a kernel of worry; I read and write for a living and for fun, and the prospect of a vision issue unsettled me.

I closed the right eye and used the left one, aided by the glasses, to find the windshield wipers Nathan needed. Then I told him we should find his mom, who was wandering around elsewhere in the store, so I could tell her about my vision problem.

As we walked through the aisles, I kept putting on my glasses — all a blur — and taking them off again, trying to focus with and without them, closing one eye and then the other. Winking, blinking, and nodding. Yep, my right eye was definitely messed up.

Here’s the Zen question that occurred to me then: If seeing is believing, then what is not-seeing?

I found my wife and told her the story I just told you, and she gave me a blank look, like she suspected I was punking her. I put on the glasses to demonstrate, and did the right-eye-shut test again, and again, only my left eye could focus.

“I think I see the problem,” my wife said as she poked her finger through the empty frame where a lens should have been and touched the lid of my closed right eye.

Immediately, I reached into my jacket pocket and found the missing lens.

“You’re lucky I’m a medical professional,” she said. “I can say with some confidence that you are not having a stroke.”

She laughed, and added that she couldn’t wait to tell this story to everybody she works with. I won’t tell you which body part her sister laughed off when she heard the story.

In my defense, our son didn’t notice the missing lens either. But that’s just because I suspect he’s as oblivious as I am. Besides, just how was I supposed to know there was something wrong with my glasses if I couldn’t see them?

That’s got to be at least as understandable as the guy who thought his family was giving him the silent treatment when, in fact, his hearing aid battery had died. (For the record, that was not me.)

From this perspective, seeing and believing became synonymous. And believing I couldn’t see made me blinder than ever.

I’m pretty sure there’s a useful life lesson in there somewhere, but it’s probably so obvious that I’m overlooking it.


TBT: Something From The Nightside

(This originally ran in The News Herald on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2004) 

WHAT WE'RE READING: The Nightside novels

In Something from the Nightside, private detective John Taylor returned to the dark, magical heart of London where he was born to find a teenage girl who had been eaten by a house that was not really a house.

The 2003 Ace book introduced Taylor, his preternatural gift for finding things, and the strange segment of the city where it's always 3 a.m., the moon is always full and things are never what they seem.

In the second book (late 2003) of Simon R. Green's projected six-part Nightside series, Agents of Light and Darkness, Taylor found himself fighting angels from both Above and Below after he was hired by a rogue priest to recover the Unholy Grail — the cup from which Judas drank at the Last Supper. Seems both sides thought it would give them the edge they needed to win their eternal war; needless to say, Taylor didn't like the odds of the Nightside surviving Judgment Day.

Now the third book, The Nightingale's Lament (2004), finds Taylor trying to figure out why fans are dying at their own hands after listening to the songs of the Nightside's latest singing sensation, Rossingnol — and what unearthly power her spiderlike managers hold over her.

(In March 2005, Ace is scheduled to release the fourth book, Hex and the City.)

Green is perhaps best known for his science fiction and fantasy series — the Deathstalker books chief among them. But the Nightside novels promise to supplant these, both in depth and scope.

Taylor runs the razor's edge, trusting neither the light nor the darkness — and trusted by neither side. He's an anti-hero for the ages, one who can reference both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Merlin the Magician, for instance. One who is as at ease jousting with knights as with biker chicks hopped up on demonic steroids.

The books are quick reads, mixing pulp detective yarns with Lovecraft all wrapped in wicked British humor. They also tend to follow a pattern that sets their protagonist and his few surviving friends against overwhelming odds — to which they respond with a shrug, a pull on a cigarette, and begin rolling up their sleeves.

You know this is liable to hurt later, but it's better to just get to it.

Now, that's the guy I want at my back when the traffic gets hungry and the spiders come out of the rotted woodwork and the angels turn people to salt at the fast-food joint and the nightingale's song makes death seem like a good idea. Someone to watch over you — to whack you upside the head and kick you in the behind and cast a protective spell and find the hidden path out of this mess.

Someone from the Nightside.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rebel, rebel: The artist as agent of chaos

PANAMA CITY — I spent some time last Friday drawing on a wall at Floriopolis, the Beck Avenue gallery operated by artist Heather Parker. I had her permission — in fact, she invited me to do so — but something about applying a pen to the white wall (even though it was inside an art gallery) seemed like an act of rebellion.

Maybe that says something about my comfort level as a rebel.

The day prior, I interviewed Olga Guy, an artist based at CityArts Cooperative, who told me a story about painting her bedroom walls and doors as a teenager, much to her mother’s chagrin. (See this story to learn how that worked out for her.)

Drawing on Heather’s wall didn’t feel like graffiti. I didn’t have a statement to make. And while convention was being flouted, authority was not. Still, I think that’s what art is, at least the way my mind interprets it: A fundamental act of rebellion.

Against the mundane, the routine. Against the merciless march of time. Sometimes afflicting the comfortable, sometimes comforting the afflicted.

Follow me, here, because art can be a lot of things. An attempt to express divinity. To faithfully capture and reproduce a moment. To reveal emotion or provoke social change. To find patterns and draw order out of chaos, or to express chaos. It can even be as simple as a “pretty picture.”

And yet, all of this is rebellious. The act of creation presupposes that transitory creatures like us — who live and die in such a short span — have something of lasting meaning to contribute. That we defy the universe and the mortal constrictions it places on us.

We leave a message — a thought, a sound, an image, a performance — to be read, or listened to, or viewed by a stranger in another place and time, interpreted and remembered. We break the laws of physics every time we make something — or maybe we prove the theories of quantum entanglement by having an impact across space and time.

It’s a conundrum.

Art can be the product of experimentation, the result of inspiration (and, in turn, it can be inspiring to others). It is forward thinking — I will not be here tomorrow, but this is what I had to offer today — and thus it becomes disruptive, transformative for the creator as well as the viewer.

It’s also like the definition of sound: Unless someone sees it, reads it, hears it, then it’s not really communication. For artists, who most often labor in private, the patron’s eye (or ear) keeps them from feeling like a tree falling in a forest when no one’s around.

In coming weeks, you’ll meet a parade of local artists — painters, jewelers, dancers, musicians, writers and more — on these pages and at, as we begin an ongoing series we’re calling “Artist’s Touch.” I hope you’ll join me us we get to know the area’s creative spirits, examine the forms their work takes, and celebrate the rebels in our midst.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Memories of haunted Halloweens gone by

1991 vintage Flash mask
PANAMA CITY — When my son was 3, I took him to a kid-friendly haunted maze at a Kmart store’s garden center. His sister was a newborn down the street at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, and our first photographs of them together show him in his Flash costume.

She turns 23 today, our little Halloween treat. But a visit to the Panama City Jaycees Haunted House under construction earlier this month set my mind on a minor event of that momentous day in 1991, and from there the Halloween memories began to tumble.

Apparently, the red-and-yellow plastic coveralls with the lightning logo conferred upon her brother the super-speed powers of the comic book hero whose adventures he had viewed on television. At least, one would think so, to see him running everywhere he went.

The mask and costume also rendered him fearless. Near the end of the haunted maze, a man in some kind of scarecrow/clown outfit squatted down and made spooky noises at the boy, who drew back his right arm and promptly punched the man in the nose of his mask.

I apologized, the man laughed, and Flash propped his fists on his hips in a heroic pose, having vanquished evil.

Jessi and Nathan
The Flash’s greatest adventure was on my mind when I walked the unfinished maze above Panama City Marine Institute, which has sheltered the Jaycees Haunted House for 11 years. (You can view a video tour through the haunted house at, and see the schedule on pages 10-11 for times and details on the event.)

Will Hancock, who has supervised the Haunted House project for the Jaycees for several years, told me last week that the event is “very alive” and doing robust business.

“I am pleased with all the hard work and dedication put in so far,” Will said. “The ‘13 Ghosts’ room and the ‘Oculus’ room have been the most consistent (frights) so far, but that can change tonight. We are adding more sound and lighting as we speak.”

The scares, while safe for adults and teens, are not appropriate for little children. I just hope no one gets punched in the nose.

No frightful creatures jumped out at me during my tour — which was lucky, since I had no hero handy to leap to my defense. But suddenly, 1991 seemed like only yesterday. When I wondered where the years had gone, I could feel them piled up like a bottleneck, heavy and thick with sweet memory.

Jessi playing with makeup.
... Sitting with the kids at a fire in a friend’s Cove area front yard, reading “The Raven” and handing out candy.

.... Wrapping the kids like toilet paper mummies during a contest at another friend’s Halloween party at Pine Log.

... Walking the sidewalks of North Shore neighborhoods to gather massive hauls of candy.

... Playing “pin the fangs on the monster” at one of Jessi’s earliest birthday parties in Century.

... Dressing in costumes to grab supper at Golden Corral on yet another Halloween.

So many autumn evenings, pumpkins carved, yards decorated, homemade costumes, movie nights with the house full of her friends, and outfits I can’t even begin to recall.

In that moment, picturing the boy in the Flash uniform holding a newborn little girl in a hospital room, I wondered if ghosts of the past truly haunt houses, or if they only haunt old men whose children have grown up.



Thursday, October 30, 2014

Free Zombie Stories!

TALES OF THE AWAKENING DEAD is free for Kindle devices and apps for Halloween weekend, Oct. 31-Nov.2.

That's ten solid short stories that explore all kinds of zombies, including the first chapter of my upcoming novel, This Mortal Flesh.

Don't have a Kindle? No problem.

If you're using a computer, just download the FREE app for your operating system.

There are also free apps for smartphones.

And if you like the book, leave a review. Check out my other stuff. And share the disease.

Meanwhile, here's the book trailer:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Life among the living dead

Chris Oneisom and Jennifer Creamer pose in zombie makeup before taking the stage for “Night of the Living Dead.”

LYNN HAVEN — They may have been coming to get Barbara, if you recall the old movie line, but the living dead I hung out with last Friday were mostly just ... walking.

Oh, they hissed and moaned. They growled from time to time, and pounded on the walls. And if a couple fought off smiles as they shuffled and limped behind the windows of the set, that might be expected.

I was invited to perform among the legion of the living dead as a “celebrity guest zombie” at the opening night of Kaleidoscope Theatre’s presentation of “Night of the Living Dead.” Before the double feature started, I signed some of my books for unsuspecting readers in the lobby, but as soon as “Hecate Hill” began — the first play of  the night’s show — I headed for the makeup room.

(The plays continue each weekend through Oct. 26, and I will be signing books before each Friday show.)

I was excited to participate. I’ve done one other community play in my adult life — Shakespeare By The Bay’s “Othello” in 2006 — and for the first time had a role that might not exceed my acting ability, which is best described as lifeless and monotone.

Daniel and his clown.
Daniel Gehrken, who also designed the promotional posters for the plays, spent about an hour finger-painting my face in shades of gray, blue and purple, before dripping blood from my eyes and smearing bloody handprints on my T-shirt. He said there was no extra charge for the face massage.

Some of the other zombies in the mob had neat prosthetic appliances that gave them the look of terrible injuries. Others had specific costumes — a cheerleader, a Girl Scout, a prom queen — and some, like Jennifer Creamer’s “bride” character, had both.

Daniel pronounced me an evil clown zombie, which made fellow zombie Madison Leighann Googe order me not to look at her. She had no difficulty stalking about with a zombie baby tearing its way through her abdomen, but she drew the line at evil clowns.

Zombie Master Chris Oneisom (or as I like to think of him, “He Who Walks Behind The Sets”) paired me with a zombie buddy, Juliet, who showed me how to shamble and indicated that there would be various times during the play when we would be expected to be louder, or quieter, depending on what else was happening on stage.

Juliet, at right.
When she sat and hid, I sat and hid. When she pounded on the walls, I pounded on the walls. When she got out of the way of starring performers running through, I got confused and almost run over.

Twice, while lurking in the background, zombies whispered to me that I could take a break by dragging myself off-stage for some water and air if I needed it. I took that to mean my makeup was impressive enough to fool the other zombies into thinking I was in a state of advanced decomposition — or at least, I looked like death warmed over.

None of this could help me in the closing dance routine, however. The best I could manage was to look befuddled, which is how I tend to look whenever anyone suggests dancing.

(Rest in) Peace

Ramona Hagan, left, won the grab-bag giveaway at Kaleidoscope Theatre in Lynn Haven last Friday. A season-ticket patron, she was sitting in the seat number randomly chosen by the author, shown in his zombie makeup. She received a graphic novel, DVD, comic book, paperback, and a copy of my collection of zombie short stories, “Tales of the Awakening Dead.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The child who paid her respects

Tammy on her bus.
FLOMATON, Ala. — The rain had not yet begun to fall, but low clouds crossed air currents above the hillside, curling around one another, gray on gray, and threatening a downpour.

We stood beside a freshly covered grave. Colorful flower arrangements lay spread on the upturned clay or stood in pots where a headstone was yet to be placed. A train passed down the hill, heading east, its mournful wail echoing among the pines and dogwoods.

At the head of the flower grouping lay a school bus formed of yellow silk buds. Near the foot, several popsicle sticks jutted from a clutch of cut flowers, decorated with figures named for some of the children who rode her bus. She drove for the Escambia County, Fla., School District for more than 15 years.

Tammy, my wife’s older sister, died Sept. 12 of complications after more than a year of treatment for leukemia, first at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola and later at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She left two sisters, a husband and four daughters, her mother, grandchildren, cousins — and countless others — to mourn.

She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, but an anonymous donor on the national registry was a perfect match for stem cell transplant. Thanks to that donor, her most recent biopsy showed she was 100-percent cancer-free. Tammy was looking forward to leaving the hospital soon and coming for a visit so she could dip her toes in the Gulf of Mexico on an autumn afternoon. She hoped to recover well enough to return to work someday.

Our photo albums are filled with her visits. A joint anniversary cruise on the Lady Anderson. Camping trips to St. Andrews State Park. Family portraits at the foot of the dunes and in the surf along Panama City Beach. Running the Gran Maze at Coconut Creek, miniature golfing, go-cart racing, shooting the rapids at Shipwreck Island. Most recently, a vow renewal ceremony for Tammy and her husband, Robby, at sunset on the beach.

As we stood there on the hill under threatening clouds — a small group having gathered a few hours after the services and now lost in our own thoughts — a beat-up Ford Explorer pulled over along the cemetery lane. A skinny girl in flip-flops and a black skirt climbed down from behind the wheel and crossed the lawn to join us. We didn’t know her, but she knew Tammy.

“I rode her bus when I was in third grade,” the girl explained. “If I was still in school, I’d be a senior this year. I heard this morning about what had happened, but I didn’t have any way to go to the funeral. I had to wait for my dad to get home from work so I could take his truck.”

She stood, hands folded together, studying the flowers and engulfed in memory, and I wondered how many others like her there were in the world. Children who rode a school bus —  perhaps only for a short time, many years ago — who will carry a piece of their driver’s spirit with them into the future. How many others might there have been if things had gone differently?

I wondered what Tammy had done to impress this one child, to move her nine years later to pay respects on a lonely hilltop as rain began to fall. But I didn’t ask. My curiosity didn’t matter, really.

The children mattered, and this girl’s quiet visitation was testament to how well Tammy saw to them in her time.

Leukemia Awareness
What: September is National Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month
Who: More than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year

Friday, September 12, 2014

Come see me at Creative Con tomorrow!

What: A gathering of writers, artists, actors, publishers, dancers, musicians and other fantastic creators to meet the public and share their talents
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13
Where: Gulf Coast State College, Student Union East Building, Panama City
Cost: $10 for adults, free to children age 6 and younger

Creative Con grows into new venue
Guests include ‘Pluggers’ artist, actors, musicians, more

PANAMA CITY — Having outgrown its original home, Panama City Creative Con shows no signs of slowing down.

This year’s Creative Con showroom will be on the second floor of the Student Union East building at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City. The show floor will be in the main lecture hall with a kids’ art program and guest panels located in two adjacent classrooms.

Creative Con is a day celebrating sequential art, comics, costumes (or “cosplay”), writing, publishing — and tons of other creative endeavors, such as dancing, filmmaking, music and more. Originally housed in the children’s department of the Bay County Public Library, and supported by the Library Foundation, massive attendance last year convinced organizers Jayson Kretzer and Bettina Mead to seek a roomier location.

“The new venue allows the opportunity to showcase more creative guests as well as expand the activities we can have the day of the show, such as live acoustic music in our singer/songwriter series, movie screenings, food on site and more,” said Kretzer, a comic artist, writer and graphic designer.

More than 50 guests are scheduled, representing a wide variety of creative and artistic careers. Special guests are Gary Brookins, cartoonist for the “Pluggers” and “Shoe” comic strips, and Jeff Parker, the award winning co-creator of the daily comic strip, “Dustin.”

“This show is not just another comic convention — it’s a creative career path convention,” Kretzer said. “We have a lot of guests this year who grew up or went to school in Bay County and have gone on to find work in the creative career of their choice, such as Gary Brookins and Michael Pedro (who worked on concept art for the video games ‘Halo 4’ and ‘DCU Online’), so I’m pretty excited to have the opportunity to bring them back to Panama City to share their experiences with our up-and-coming creatives.”

Other guests include:

  • Artists Josh Hughes (“Atomic Terrier”), John Russo, Amanda Rachels, Victor Strickland, Mark Maddox, Katie Bracewell, Nathan Smith, Matthew Shelley, K. Michael Russell (“Hack/Slash,” “Justice League”), Clint Hagler, Aaron Hazouri, Brett Brooks (“Dust Bunny”), Randolph Dixon (“Absentee”),  Edmund Dansart and John Holland.
  • Writers Chris Arrant, Mark Boss (“One Bullet”), Bobby Nash, Evelyn Rainey, Shaun Phelps, Michael Lowe (LETO-1), Erica Heflin, Chris Widdop (“Velcro: The Ninja Cat”), Wes Locher, Kevin Laporte, poet and professor Lynn Wallace, and this writer (“Tales of the Awakening Dead” and others).
  • Cosplayers Alice Infinity, Lozziepop Cosplay, Emerald Coast Cosplay, Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club, and Jo Roberts.
  • Actors Dawn Buvurger (“Cremain”), Savana Jade Wehunt (“The Walking Dead”), and Daniel Emery Taylor (“The Return of Swamp Thing”).
  • Publishers Martinez/Butler, Inverse Press, and Graphic Knowledge Magazine (

Other guests are educator Kat Kan, stuntman Jim O’Rear, podcaster Deadpool Speaks, rock band Rogues Gallery, toymaker Roderick Hall, humorist Teresa Roberts Logan, ghost hunters Panhandle Paranormal Investigations, videographer Lou Columbus, and dancers from Blues and Lindy in the Panhandle.

A children’s activity booth will open at 11 a.m. The costume contest will be at 1 p.m., with three age divisions: Junior (ages 12 and younger), General (ages 13 and older), and Group (two or more people, all ages).

Other events include:
  • Two cosplay panels with tips and advice on makeup, custom creating costumes, places to shop for materials, and how to make props.
  • Making Comics, the Inverse Press experience using crowd funding to market independent comics.
  • Comics to Screen, a panel discussion with Wallace, Arrant and Columbus
  • Movie screening of “Fat Chance,” directed by guests O’Rear and Taylor, will show at 2 p.m. in the Theater Room (anyone under the age of 18 must have parental guidance due to some mature subject matter).

A full schedule is available at

Kretzer said he has been intrigued by art since he received his first comic book as a pre-teen. However, growing up in the Panhandle, he never had an opportunity to meet professional artists and illustrators or learn about these types of career paths.

“Finally at age 25, I was able to go to a comic convention,” Kretzer said. “I met many industry professionals face-to-face who helped put me on the right track for my career.”

For 15 years, he has worked from home doing freelance illustration, graphic arts and website design. His work also includes sketch cards created for Marvel and Cartoon Network licensed products, and two self-published books. He often teaches or speaks in local schools and other venues, which gave him chances to share information with younger students.

But he hopes to go further with Creative Con by inspiring young artists the way he was inspired.

“The goal of Creative Con is three-fold,” Kretzer said. “To give young people in our area access to mentors in the field they are interested in; to show K-12 students educational opportunities in our area that will help them fulfill their dreams; and, to provide children with the tools they need to succeed staying right here.” 

Today, comic book movies are on the big screen, which Kretzer hopes will encourage use of graphic novels in the classroom as a learning tool and bring about a renewed interest in sequential art. There is a push from STEM to STEAM education, adding the “A” for arts back into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum.

Creative Con attendees can participate in career discussions in the fields of game development, costume design, sequential art, songwriting, creative writing and more. GCSC will share information about course offerings like the new Digital Media bachelors degree, and Haney Technical Center representatives will address their Digital Design program.

“Art spurs innovation and growth within children of all ages,” said Kretzer, who identified himself as a visual learner. “Art and design are an integral part of many new-age jobs.” 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Local author saves a place for readers

PANAMA CITY — Olivia DeBelle Byrd is a storyteller, part of a Southern tradition that begins with tales of family told and retold at gatherings, and continues with made-up tales that are at least partly true. Sometimes, both sorts of stories happen all at once.

Olivia’s first book, “Miss Hildreth Wore Brown,” was a collection of family anecdotes and essays. It won the Silver Medal in the 2011 Florida Publishers Association President’s Book Awards.

“I was  raised by a Southern father and grandmother of uncommon wit,” Olivia said, discussing the book. “The fabric of my childhood was laced with humor. I have loved the art of storytelling as long as I can remember, so when I was encouraged to write these stories down they poured forth as though an age-old tap had been discovered and turned on.”

Her second book, a novel called “Save My Place,” is being published this month by Mercer University Press. It’s the story of Elisabeth Sterling, a young woman growing up in the South during the turbulent 1960s, and the evolution of a marriage as she meets, weds and maintains a relationship with her beloved Kincaid Patterson.

“It is set in the 1960s and ’70s as that was my ‘coming of age’ — high school, college, marriage, children,” Olivia said. “I have wonderful memories of those days and it was a lot of fun to write about it. Baby boomers will relate to the pop culture of movies, music, books, TV shows, the way we dressed, the difference in social and sexual mores.

Olivia DeBelle Byrd
Olivia, better known locally by her married name “Cooley,” is a third-generation Panama City native with a penchant for turning ordinary happenings into compelling tales. She will celebrate the new novel’s release in the coming weeks with a series of events (see the accompanying info box for details).

Crucial to “Save My Place” is “a passionate and unconditional love” between Elisabeth and Kincaid that has to confront a painful past, heart-searing separation and the greatest of all tragedies, but the biggest obstacle is the loss of faith that threatens to undermine all that they have.

It isn’t all gloom, though. Upon meeting Elisabeth, Kincaid exclaims, “You strike me as a very entertaining person.” And it is that ability to find humor and joy amid sorrows, such as Kincaid’s deployment to fight in the Vietnam War, that carries them — and the reader — through seemingly unbearable situations.

“The Vietnam War was a very impressionable and pivotal time for my generation,” Olivia said. “I was in college during the middle of the war when the U.S. had the highest number of troops deployed. A lottery was held for the draft in December 1969, several years before the draft ended in 1973. That made an impression on me.”

Elisabeth is a realist. She would prefer to abide in Peter Pan’s Neverland and has a “magic door inside ... that kept all the ills of the world at bay,” but that door comes ajar when their child is diagnosed with leukemia.

“Elisabeth grew up in very similar circumstances as I did, so many of her experiences are similar to mine growing up,” Olivia said. “One of the main story lines was inspired by a friend of mine who went through a very similar experience and shared it with me in a beautiful way.”

‘Save My Place’ Events
  • Book signing 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 13, at The Hidden Lantern bookstore, 84 N. Barrett Square in Rosemary Beach; (850) 231-0091
  • Official book launch reception 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida19 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; 769-4451
  • Luncheon and inspirational talk 10:30 a.m. Oct. 7, at First United Methodist Church Community Life Center903 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; tickets are $15 and may be reserved by calling 763-6537
  • Details:


Friday, September 05, 2014

She’s got skin in this game

Nicole Desiree Hays/Game Show Network
One of the contestants on this season of the Game Show Network’s reality competition series “Skin Wars” counts Panama City as her “second home,” and credits Gulf Coast State College’s theater program for encouraging and supporting her love of performance art.

Nicole Desiree Hays, 30, now lives outside of Tampa and runs her own business, CirqueVille Entertainment, which provides everything from simple face-painting for birthday parties to stilt-walking balloon artists, fire-twirlers, human statues, burlesque acrobatics and more.

“It’s kind of hard, and you have to be versatile, for sure,” Nicole said by telephone Wednesday afternoon. “I’m just happy to be able to create and make a living doing what I love to do.”

Nicole, who I met some years ago when she was in theater productions with my son at Gulf Coast, got into body-painting after modeling for local artist Amanda Stiffler. “She showed me everything about body-painting,” Nicole said. “She became a real mentor to me.”

Two years ago, while pursuing her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, Nicole took a class in body-painting, and that teacher recommended her to a producer for “Skin Wars.” The producer talked to her about the show more than a year and a half ago, and Nicole was called to an audition several months later. Of about 25 who auditioned, 10 were brought to Los Angeles for the February 2014 shoot.

“The cast was awesome,” she said. “We took care of each other, really had each other’s backs. Yes, we were in competition, but everybody grew really close.”

The producers wouldn’t let contestants keep art supplies in the shared house, so they couldn’t work on concepts they might try to use on the show. Nicole said the housemates found a unique way of getting around that prohibition.

“Artists draw all the time, no matter what,” she said. “They took away our supplies, so we used condiments in the kitchen to do art on pots and pans.”

“Skin Wars” is hosted by actress and model Rebecca Romijn, who knows something about body-painting from her time portraying the mutant Mystique in the “X-Men” movie franchise. Romijn was also the first model to be body-painted for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue.

“I adore her,” Nicole said of Romijn. “She’s the most down-to-earth person, and she complimented my outfit one episode. I couldn’t believe it.”

One of the judges is RuPaul Charles, who shot to fame as a drag performer and also hosts “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Although the contestants are not allowed to talk with the celebrities at length, Nicole said, RuPaul kept the experience lively with his quick wit and energy.

Nicole couldn’t talk at length about the elimination aspect of the show, which is halfway through the current season, but she bragged on the talents of her castmates. Each episode, the contestants receive a challenge and limited time to complete it, then one is eliminated by a panel of judges. The finale will feature three finalists competing for a cash prize and a career-launching opportunity.

Nicole said her greatest challenge in an episode that has been broadcast was when she was tasked to create a new superhero in only a few hours. The guest judge for the episode was Lynda Carter, who portrayed Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series.

“I thought I had a really great story behind mine,” Nicole said, as the design incorporated an item that her grandmother gave her, “but they weren’t able to use the backstories. I guess there wasn’t time to tell everyone’s story. I did a full glitter bodysuit, but really shot myself in the foot. That was the first time I was in the bottom three, which was terrifying.”

Originally from Van Buren, Ark., Nicole describes herself as “the black sheep” of her family of conservative dentists and doctors, in part because she chose the Bohemian lifestyle of an artist. She first came to Panama City on a college Spring Break trip and decided to stay.

“I called home and said, ‘Send my stuff,’” she recalled. “I felt like an orphan. But I met so many amazing families, and Gulf Coast was such a great start for me.”



What: Elimination competition between body-painters
When: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Game Show Network (repeats throughout the week)


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ultra run, art show, film to support Congo charity
SEACREST — Morning coffee was a special Congo blend as a crowd gathered in the offices of Amavida Coffee & Tea in Seacrest to hear about the company’s plans to aid destitute women in the region where the coffee originated.

“We’re hosting a 40-mile ultra run with On TheGround Global to raise funds for Project Congo, a gender equality and women’s empowerment initiative,” explained Casey Tindell-Trejo, Amavida’s marketing coordinator, in the lead-up to the meeting.

Amavida has long been associated with programs to educate and improve the quality of life of the coffee farmers with whom the company deals directly. Most of these have been in concert with On the Ground, a global charity founded by Chris Treter of Higher Grounds Trading Co.

Amavida has participated in On The Ground projects in Chiapas, Mexico, and Ethiopia, helping to provide potable water, financial training, and micro loans to those living in desperate conditions.

“We have the ability to take a very little amount of capital and do incredible stuff, see real impacts,” Treter said during a conference call. “We put in water projects (at Chiapas) at one-fifth the cost of what the Mexican government could do. This is real stuff. It works. It’s effective.”

The next projects on the agenda involve helping farmers and families in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a constant state of war has lingered for decades, and where women — mostly widows — suffer the hardships. Several public events will take place locally to raise awareness and funds.

“The goal is to educate our community about what is going on abroad, and how we’re doing that through coffee — helping to create sustainable communities,” said Dan Bailey, founder and owner of Amavida.

The events planned through the fall and into the new year will include:

l Solstice Run: From sunrise to sunset Dec. 21, run 40 miles along Scenic 30A and nature trails around the towns to support Project Congo initiatives. No registration fees will be charged; instead, runners are asked to solicit pledges. Details:

Running a 5K for charity is laudable, Treter said, but “when you run 40 miles, you’re really bringing attention to something else.” In this case, he said, “Running is a bridge that provides an opportunity for people to pay attention to something that’s extremely important.”

l Paddle Run: Tentatively scheduled for Spring 2015, this will be a paddleboard event set on the coastal dune lakes of 30A.

l Project Congo Coffee: Amavida is bagging and selling a special blend of coffee grown in Congo; $5 per bag sold goes to Project Congo; each bag has photos from the region shot by Treter. Details:

l Art Show: Musician Cody Copeland is organizing an exhibit that will feature art created by locals on the theme of gender equality. (Date and location to be determined.)

l Screening “Virunga”: Amavida will host screenings of a documentary film about the Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse locations on the planet, and home to the last of the mountain gorillas. (Dates and locations to be announced.) Park rangers protect this UNESCO world heritage site from armed militia, poachers and the dark corporate forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources.

Treter, who has run ultra marathons for charity across Ethiopia, organized a Summer Solstice run in Travers City, Mich., that raised $30,000 for Project Congo. The money is being used at the coffee cooperative to boost education in gender equality and teach native women business skills. 

The money will also allow for micro-loans so the women can fund a business, raising their profile in their community.

The goal for Amavida’s Project Congo events is to raise $100,000.

On the Ground points to Zawadi Kaleura as an example of a real person the project will aid. Her husband drowned trying to cross a lake to Rwanda so he could buy sheet metal for the roof of their hut. Now she’s raising four boys in a region where constant conflict has destroyed the economy and killed nearly 6 million people.

Zawadi is a first year member of the Muungano coffee cooperative, but has only 700 trees from which she can harvest beans — not nearly enough to provide enough income to support her family.

Project Congo will provide a Gender Action Learning system and series of workshops for the area’s women to learn leadership, business and accounting skills, as well as micro-loans to help generate their own businesses and begin lifting themselves out of poverty. She said a micro-loan would allow her to buy and sell palm oil and soft drinks, making enough profit to maintain her home and send her children to school.

“If we could see the reality of our neighbors’ lives, we would take care of them — because we are a caring people,” Treter said.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

One last ‘na-nu’ before you go

Mork calling Orson. Come in, Orson.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — In June of last year, a supermoon was in the sky the night author and screenwriter Richard Matheson died. A supermoon painted the night in brilliant shades of blue last Sunday, as well, the night actor and comedian Robin Williams’ took his own life.

It’s getting to be that I dread the next supermoon, which will hang over us on Sept. 9, and wonder what its tides will wash to the heavens.

Among his many dramatic roles, Williams portrayed Chris, the lead character in a 1998 movie based on Matheson’s brilliant 1978 novel, “What Dreams May Come.” In the film, as in the book, Chris finds himself in heaven after a car crash, then descends into his wife’s self-imposed hell to rescue her soul after she commits suicide.

“It’s not about understanding,” Chris says in one scene, “it’s about not giving up!”

By Tuesday, social media was filled with lists of Williams’ roles that touched people — beginning with his antics as Mork from Ork and continuing through his recent TV series, “The Crazy Ones.” Many of them quoted from “Dead Poets Society” or “The World According to Garp” or even “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Many commented on “What Dreams May Come” and wondered how a man who starred in a film with such a transcendent message could fall victim to his own darkness.

It’s a valid question with a gaping hole in it that defies an easy explanation because it’s a darkness that defies logic. It’s almost more incredible that Williams was with us for so long, considering the depression with which he struggled throughout his life. He was the quintessential clown, laughing in public, crying in private. Victim of a disease that so many fail to understand, he tried to cope by turning his pain into other people’s laughter.

After a friend’s post on Facebook quoted a line of dialogue, I was reminded of a scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” in which Williams played an adult Peter Pan who returns to Neverland in search of his kidnapped children. He’s a sad man with a broken spirit, on his knees in the sanctuary of the Lost Boys. One of the children removes Peter’s glasses and touches his face, finally turning up the corners of his mouth. The child sees the ghost of a smile on the man’s face and says, “Oh, there you are, Peter!”

Or the scene in “Bicentennial Man,” an often overlooked gem of a movie in which Williams played a robot that longed to become human. “To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.”

In his too-short life, Williams earned the acclaim, the recognition, even the approval. So many times, the wonder of his talent, his lightning wit, his giving spirit were acknowledged. But the mystery and terror of his condition didn’t allow him to internalize the love, left him perhaps feeling like a sham, not even a whole human being.

He said in interviews that addiction robbed him of his dignity, and the manner of his death has robbed him of it once again. Just as it has robbed all of us who were children getting laughs in the classroom by repeating Mork’s jokes from the night before, or who laughed until we cried while listening to his album, “Reality: What a Concept,” or who were moved by his performance in “The Fisher King.”

If this loss is to mean anything, and though we may never understand, we must never give up.

Na-nu, Na-nu