In honor of International Bat Appreciation Day, I’m finally posting about my incredible trip to Panama! I have been fascinated by bats ever since I was a child and have dreamed of being able to study them in a real world setting. Last year I became aware of a bat survey being held in Panama and jumped at the chance to attend.
The expedition was being led by none other than Merlin Tuttle, a world famous ecologist who quite literally wrote the book on bats. The trip was co-led by Daniel Hargreaves, an extremely knowledgable conservationist from the U.K. Our team conducted a survey in the Mamoni Valley of Central Panama, a biodiversity hot spot teeming with life. We stayed at the gorgeous Cocobolo Nature Reserve which covers 1,100 acres of lush rainforest. Over the course of a week, we studied 367 bats, which translated to 46 species.
I cannot begin to express what an amazing experience this was and I look forward to participating in more field work in the future. I also spent a day exploring Panama City before heading out to Cocobolo Nature Reserve and have included images from that location as well. There are a few photos of me taken by others where I was not sure who to credit; my apologies. To learn more about the amazing world of bats, please swing by www.merlintuttle.com!
Special thanks to photographer extraordinaire Daniel Whitby for adjusting my camera settings and creating an incredible set! I still can’t believe that I was able to catch an image of this exquisite bat in flight!
While visiting Panama, I fell in love with Casco Viejo’s historic buildings.
I spent some quality time with this little Pygmy Fruit-eating Bat (Artibeus phaeotis).
Cocobolo field station.
Nighttime in the cloud forest felt like magic.
This identification guide was an invaluable tool for studying bats in Panama. The species list is very expansive and the devil really is in the details!
Scenic photo from the first night we set up mist nets in the river. This is shortly before I stepped into deeper water, which resulted in my boots becoming completely flooded. This process would repeat for another night or two, and each time, I was amazed that the water could outsmart me so easily. I eventually just accepted my fate and embraced the experience. The jungle is no place for divas!
Look closely and you will spot an adorable White-throated Round-eared Bat (Lophostoma silvicolum). These bats are especially fascinating because they roost inside of termite nests!
The data collected while studying bats is recorded on a processing sheet. This information helps conservationists better understand bats, which aids in protecting them.
This little guy was swimming with us while we were netting in the river one night. Cheers to Alex Shepack for bringing him to the field station so that we could admire him!
Panama City skyline.
Check out this sleeping bat silhouette! Some bat species construct “tents” from leaves by nibbling on them until they fold. Once modified, the leaf can serve as a shelter, which offers protection from harsh elements and predators.
On the riverbank, trying to ID the bat I’m holding…
Daniel Whitby wanted to try an experiment with the settings on my little Canon PowerShot camera. The next thing I knew, I was able to take this amazing photo!
Merlin Tuttle leading the charge! This hike to the Continental Divide ranks in my top five favorites of all time.
Spotted outside of a small market in Panama City.
I absolutely loved working outdoors and becoming familiar with the sights, sounds, and hidden mysteries of the rainforest. It’s awesome how alive the jungle becomes at night! I learned so much from the people in my group and will always be grateful to them for their camaraderie, patience, and impeccable instruction.
Look at the ears on this charming Lophostoma silvicolum!
Since closing my fashion line to focus more on personal endeavors, I’ve been having a blast making my own costumes. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be stocking up on spandex. I’ve also made quite a few dresses and skirts from some awesome novelty prints! There are so many great fabrics out there and the possibilities are endless.
Here are a few cool images from a photo shoot I did with Radiant Inc. showcasing my circus costumes. The heels I’m wearing in the top photo were painted by my awesome friend Anthony Palladino 🙂
I’m writing this letter to you a month after hearing that you had died. I stumbled across something on Facebook saying you were ill a while back and meant to reach out, but I became distracted with a million other things, and missed my chance. When I received the invite to your memorial I was floored. Feelings of regret for not contacting you have haunted me ever since. I have reread our last message several times and I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to catch up after losing each other for two decades.
Kids these days (see what I did there) will never understand what life was like before social media and the internet. I moved away less than a year after we graduated from high school, and although we corresponded via snail mail, eventually you and I lost touch. I thought of you often, and whenever I ran across someone from our hometown, I would always try to find you, to no avail. I was over the moon when you tracked me down on Facebook in 2013! After so many years apart, it was amazing to speak to you, if only through a message.
I stumbled across a letter you wrote me back in 1995 yesterday. I was sorting through a box of stuff from my days living in Austin, and there it was, just sitting on top. Before I even read the envelope, I thought to myself, “How cool if this was from Darlene”. It was. You were unapologetically yourself in this letter and I couldn’t help but smile the whole time I was reading. You complained about feeling old at the age of nineteen and how being grown up was putting distance between all of us who were so close in high school. It’s funny to read those words now knowing how things change and the many years that would end up separating us.
You were always fierce, but extremely kind. I don’t recall us ever having an argument and I trusted you more than anyone else during those horrible last three years of high school Hell. I miss dancing outside of the taco stand in Compton after we narrowly escaped being arrested for somehow ending up in a riot. I miss listening to Black Flag in your room and hearing you talk about your new boyfriend. To my delight, you two remained together all of these years. I find myself wanting to track him down and tell him how fucking much you always loved him, but I don’t know if that’s weird. I miss wandering around Redlands at night looking for ghosts while everyone else we knew was getting drunk. I miss hanging out with Nole, who lived in the park and collected books. I loved that the three of us would talk about whatever we were reading and it didn’t matter where we came from, only that we had stories to tell.
I watched your memorial service through live streaming on my lunch break at work. I wanted to be there, but wasn’t able to make the trip to California on short notice. Listening to your friends speak about what a genuine person you were made my heart practically burst. I was so happy to know that you only got better with age and that other people had the opportunity to experience who you were. I followed my dream of living all over the country and becoming a fashion designer. You became a force of nature, dedicating your life to working with the homeless, primarily veterans. In our last message, you spoke of mentoring at risk youth because you remembered how hard things were for us at that age and understood “bratty” kids, even when other adults couldn’t. This didn’t surprise me at all and I hate the fact that I never realized the extent of the work you did and missed the opportunity to tell you how much you mattered. Since we were always honest with each other and never held back, I’m going to tell the truth right now; so many people on this planet are dicks and the world is darker without you in it. You did so much in the short time you were here and I have no doubt that you were only getting started.
The last page of your letter was just a pasted quote, “You already know how it ends”. I thought I knew, but I was wrong. I expected to be dead by thirty-five, because my mother only made it that far, and I assumed everyone I knew would outlast me. Here I am, celebrating my forty-third birthday just two weeks after hearing that you are gone. It’s moments like these where people ponder the meaning of life as they face their mortality, but I don’t have time for that tired bullshit. Instead, I find myself remembering the girls we were and being so damn proud of the women we became.
Thank you for all of the lessons you taught me. Thank you for always having my back when I needed it most. Thank you for finding me again and giving me that one last conversation between two old friends trying to catch up after twenty years apart. Thank you for proving everyone wrong by showing that strange looking teenagers can grow up to be badasses and society should stop underestimating people just because they don’t fit the status quo.
Well, I guess that’s it. I don’t know how to say goodbye because I don’t want to. I’m going to look for more of your old letters, but in the meantime, here’s one last letter to you.
I have been focusing so much on aerial and flexibility training over the past couple of years that I have had very little time to work on projects. I knew this would be the case when I closed the Poison Candy shop, however I expected that I would have managed to crank out at least a few masterpieces by now. I have declined pretty much every freelance offer in favor of swinging from the rafters, however I recently signed on for a fun costuming gig.
My friend Christopher Brown is a brilliant actor and an equally talented director. Chris introduced me to the play “HIR” by Taylor Mac over the summer and I instantly fell in love with the script. When Christopher mentioned that he would be directing the play for Cockroach Theatre, I was thrilled to come aboard as the costume designer.
Valerie Carpenter Bernstein and Tim Cummins photographed by Richard Brusky.
Good art is subjective and “HIR” is no exception. I imagine that most people who see the play walk away with a very unique perspective. Mac embraces the concept of “absurd realism”, and “HIR” is no exception. The story is an American comedic tragedy featuring a middle class family trying to navigate the ever changing culture and attempting to establish their place within it. Each character has embarked on a person journey, causing various types of clashes and sometimes disturbing revelations. “HIR” is one of those stories that tricks you into laughing only to leave you feeling like you have been emotionally dropkicked by the time it has concluded. I could theorize about the complex artistry of the production all day, however I will leave you with this great review which does a stellar job of describing the overall narrative.
The script did mention a “massive beauty pageant wig”. This is the result of two combined wigs, 14 ounces of hairspray, and approximately 3 hours of styling.
Most of the smaller shows that I have worked on have centered around glamorous performers flaunting their various attributes. It was a wonderful challenge to take on a production where my characters were more typical in some ways and completely over the top in others. I was also tasked with providing wigs which gave me an opportunity to shake the dust off of my teasing brush and drown myself in hairspray. I had a blast reacquainting myself with glamour makeup and learning how to create a believable, simple false beard. My new friend Stephanie knows every makeup trick in the book and was quick to share her extensive knowledge.
I finally had a chance to watch the show a few nights ago and I am very pleased overall. It was wonderful to sit in the audience and witness their honest reactions. The performers brought their best and I thoroughly enjoyed how Taylor Mac’s characters came alive. Much like my beloved “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, I plan to see “HIR” performed by as many theatre companies as possible.
“I believe whole-heartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward.” ~Taylor Mac
Brenna Folger and Levi Fackrell photographed by Richard Brusky.
A couple of nights ago, something horrifying happened. I was on my way to see the play that I just costumed when my companion and I became involved in a hit-and-run collision. A vehicle was driving the wrong way down the street which resulted in another car being struck and spiraling out of control. As luck would have it, we narrowly avoided being hit, although the incident showered our car with quite a bit of debris. The driver who was at fault took off, leaving witnesses confused and a severely damaged vehicle containing two passengers stranded in the middle of the road.
When incidents like this happen, everyone reacts differently. When you’re dealing with a group of individuals, there’s no surefire way to predict every behavior. This is especially true when reacting to new or uncommon situations. There were several people who saw what happened and numerous others who stopped to help. I was in awe as complete strangers took the time to check for anyone who might have been injured, stuck around as witnesses, and did everything within their power to assist. The division of labor unfolded naturally and it was quite a sight to behold. I was amazed by the open communication that ensued between numerous people who had no relation to each other, yet worked diligently to improve a horrible situation. I can’t speak as to what everyone else walked away from that incident feeling, but for me, it was a jumble of emotions along with one glaring observation.
The most profound feeling I experienced was an overwhelming sense of appreciation. It also became apparent to me how effortless it can be to interact with others when we see them simply as humans. Nobody on the scene of that collision had any sort of criteria that had to be met before they cared about the others. There was no discussion of who voted for Trump or who voted for Hillary. Nobody based their concern on religious affiliation or race. All that mattered to this group of people was that everyone was safe and that the situation got handled in the most respectful and efficient way possible. This is the beauty of spontaneous order. This is the beauty of humanity.
If you distance yourself from the divisiveness of politics and internet fighting, it becomes easier to spot these incredible acts when they occur. I’ve seen situations where people have refused to accept responsibility for their actions, thus complicating the lives of others. I have also witnessed occurrences where people truly care about their neighbors, oftentimes at their own expense. I am in no way suggesting that one should ignore the current political climate, but merely pointing out how tempting it is to be consumed by all that is distasteful without acknowledging the areas that are flourishing.
I’ve been extremely disgusted by the behavior exhibited by so many over this last election cycle. As a libertarian, I’m consistently disappointed in government, so perhaps my expectations are lower than most. Even so, it has been shocking to witness how grotesque the current political discourse has become. I’ve watched as people I know have ended friendships over a ballot box, or held fast to ideas that they know are wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence just to maintain an ideology.
I have rather strong opinions about many things. Truth be told, there are very few people in my life who agree with me on most political issues that I hold in very high regard. There have been times when I have felt separated from the people I love because of things like disagreements over public policy and opinions about religion or lack thereof. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defining people in such a narrow terms, but humans are more complicated than that. As a seeker of truth, one of the greatest things you can do for yourself is to be exposed to ideas that you disagree with, to interact with people who make you apprehensive, and to actually listen when they speak. If your goal is to understand the world and approach it from a scientific standpoint, then you must swiftly escape your comfort zone. An echo chamber does wonders for ego, but will not encourage growth.
It’s undeniable that terrible things happen in this world and there are people who perpetrate unspeakable deeds. There are also people who will step up when they’re called upon, not because they are being ordered, but because it is the right thing to do.
Someone wise once pointed out to me that it’s easy to take inventory on everybody else, but the real effort begins when we acknowledge our own flaws and then work to correct them. By only focusing on negativity, individuals fall prey to an endless cycle of cynicism and fear. I have lived this way before and refuse to return to that place. By favoring constructive discussion over angry debate, it’s possible to develop a better understanding of others, and consequently, ourselves.
Recently, Aerial Fitness had an awesome day of shooting with Shane O’Neal at his studio here in Las Vegas. It was nice to have an excuse to make a couple of costumes for myself 🙂 I’ve had a blast with my training and look forward to learning so much more.
I recently had a birthday. It was the birthday that many people dread. It was the birthday that solidifies being a certified adult, and dare I say, the birthday that many view as signifying the beginning of decline into old age. I turned forty years old on April 2nd.
Bendy birthday Barbie modified by my awesome partner in crime.
I hadn’t thought much about being “over the hill” until early March. One day I was in flexibility class when it hit me. I looked at my coach and said, “Wow. I’m turning forty in a few weeks.” It was a strange realization and I wasn’t sure what it really meant for me. So many people make a big deal about this one particular birthday and I wondered if I should care more about it. I’m at a point in my life where I truly love myself and am proud of my accomplishments. It’s difficult to stress about such a milestone when you’re in a good place and feel like a badass most of the time. Then something really annoying happened. I ended up injured.
I had made a really bad decision months before. Instead of taking a rest day from training to let some major soreness subside, I chose to pretend that my body was super human. While doing an inversion on the pole, I felt a pain akin to an icepick on my shoulder blade and chalked it up to something that only needed a few days recovery time. Fast forward to two months later when I’m in urgent care getting an x-ray on my ribs because the pain is so intense that I’m on the verge of tears. I was unable to take a full breathe and could barely drive my car there, let alone work or train.
I’m embarrassed to admit that my “minor” injury was actually micro tearing of the muscles on my scapula. I sometimes have a difficult time differentiating between discomfort and pain, so training normally for two months just made it worse. My body reached a point where it would no longer cooperate and I ended up laid up for five days in bed. After sitting around for almost a week, I was able to return to work, but not to training as usual. I have spent the past month and a half going to physical therapy three times a week and trying not to lose my mind. My coaches have been very understanding and have tailored my workouts to accommodate me. It’s incredibly frustrating to cut out 80% of your physical activity and there’s always a fear of losing ability. Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson and don’t ever want to wind up in that situation again.
My birthday landed right in the middle of recovery and all of a sudden I didn’t feel so fabulous. Turning forty was great when I was swinging from the rafters, but not when I was struggling to get my arm over my head or carry anything over five pounds. I was really angry at myself and felt like a complete failure. I began to wonder if the people who have told me that I am too old for aerial were right and I became shrouded in a cloud of negativity and self-doubt.
Joven Desde rules and the video below proves it.
Luckily, I’m surrounded by friends and family who care about me and don’t allow me to wallow in self pity. It was difficult, but I managed to silence the negative thoughts and waited patiently for my body to heal. I began gradually going back to normal activity last week with no pain. I saw my orthopedic specialist today and he is very satisfied with my progress. I had the opportunity to train side by side with my amazing flexibility/aerial coach today and I left the gym this evening feeling like a million bucks.
Now, let me get to the point of this blog. This whole birthday ordeal, topped off with injury drama, has inspired me to address something that I try not to talk too much about. I don’t keep my age a secret, however I don’t broadcast it either. There are so many people who are age obsessed that it becomes the focal point of how they look at others, and eventually, themselves. Older people are often disregarded as being irrelevant and out of touch while young people desperately fear growing old. There is a pervasive thought that certain things must fall by the wayside as one advances in years and I thought I was past that type of thinking until I ended up in a tough spot on my “big birthday”. I hate to admit it, but I became my own worst enemy for a short time.
I was thirty-seven when my dear friend Katherine convinced me to try aerial silks. I felt great when we were together, but was extremely intimidated to go to class on my own. It was very clear to me that I was not taken seriously by others in the various studios where I was training and a few people I knew discouraged me from trying because I was “so old”. Not one to shy away from something I want, I went for it anyway. For six months I struggled, barely showing up to class and feeling like an epic failure when I did. I pretty much stopped going altogether and hated myself for it. Two weeks after turning thirty-eight I began training flexibility and aerial silks with Kristi Toguchi at Aerial Fitness and I haven’t looked back since.
Kristi always has my back! Behind the scenes during a recent photo shoot with Shane O’ Neill.
I warned Kristi of my age when we spoke on the phone before my first class. I expected to be turned away, but instead, she told me that she would train me like a performer even if I had no plans to ever become one. I was skeptical, but dragged myself to her class anyway. Imagine my surprise when I found myself part of a community that supports and encourages each other. It has been my commitment to this group of people that keeps me going on the days where I feel like giving up. I would be lying if I said it was easy. Some days I wonder what the hell I am doing when my body reminds me that I’m not a kid anymore. These are the days that I push myself the hardest. These are also the days where I reap the greatest reward.
Most people I train with are considerably younger than me. The person I train with the most is thirteen years old and an adorable force to be reckoned with. It’s not easy keeping up with her, but I have an abundance of determination and enjoy the challenge. She inspires me to be the best version of myself. I consider it my duty to show this young lady what is possible for her when she reaches my age. I want her to remember our time together when people someday tell her to stop being an aerial star and act like a proper, boring grown-up.
Ernestine Shepherd trains like a boss. Watch the video. Trust me.
So there you have it. Here’s the take-away:
1. Don’t be stupid and train when your body needs to rest. Your ego will survive a day off and you aren’t falling off of the motivation wagon by resting when necessary. Being stubborn will only make matters worse when you trade that one rest day for six weeks of it. Plus, it really sucks admitting to an urgent care nurse that you are an obstinate asshole.
2. Don’t sabotage your success. It’s easy to fall into the trap of self-doubt. One of the reasons I share so many photos and videos of my progress on social media is to document my work and hold myself accountable. When you start to feel like your accomplishments amount to peanuts, remember how far you have come. Even better, remember the people who told you that you would never make it. You can spot them easily, sitting on the sidelines of life, silently scolding themselves for shooting down your dream because they are too scared to chase theirs.
3. What’s the truth about turning forty? It’s awesome! I have had an incredible life so far. There have been many ups and downs, but it has been one hell of an adventure! I believed at thirty-three that since I had accomplished my goal of being a fashion designer, all that was left on my bucket list was to travel more. I am happy to say that I was terribly wrong. I am excited to see where I can go with my training as well as my other pursuits. There is so much out there to experience and I am grateful for each day that I’m on this Earth. Is it more difficult to train at forty? You bet your ass it is. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Don’t forget where you started! Progress is gradual. Give yourself credit for your hard work and accomplishments.
I recently had the pleasure of working with the insanely talented Tristan Risk. As you may already know, she is one of my favorite debaucherous darlings and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to outfit her in something special. I have been wanting to pattern a burlesque bustle skirt for some time, so creating a custom creation for Little Miss Risk made perfect sense.
I also threw in an exclusive Swarovski bat necklace and the Vegas inspired “Showgirl Flower” hair clip. Tristan added a couple of her own pieces to the ensemble and the result is nothing short of exquisite. I am eternally grateful to Shimona Henry of Pin-Up Perfection Photography for documenting this delightful collaboration. Swing by her site to witness some truly awe inspiring imagery.
The aerial school I attend recently had a performance at Lorna Jane. It was so much fun to see the girls I train with show off their skills! My flexibility/aerial coach Kristi Toguchi choreographed some wonderful acts and it was awesome learning new tricks.
I tried adagio a couple of times last year when my flexibility and balance were pretty much nonexistent. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could comfortably grab my feet in this pose while Danielle picked me up. The hard work really fell on her, however, as she had to parade me around. It’s a good thing she’s so damn strong 😉
Being carried around by Danielle
My flexibility is coming along nicely. I feel like the next couple of months will produce some amazing progress! It was great to be paired up with Emily as she is an incredible contortionist and inspiration.
Getting bendy with Emily
Kristi has been teaching monthly free stretch classes for “Workout Wednesday” at Lorna Jane. If you have ever been interested in getting more bendy I highly suggest you swing by the store or check out her Aerial Fitness school. I can’t recommend Kristi enough! I just had my one year anniversary training with her and it’s crazy to look at how far I’ve come. I am so excited to see what I accomplish next 🙂
So much has happened since my last blog in September! I have been really focusing on training over the past few months and am incredibly happy with the results. I spend most of my free time in the gym bending into a pretzel, hanging from the rafters, and cross-training with Roni Taylor. To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Aerial training with Erica Vanlee at Aerial Fitness
I’ve become much stronger and everything is really starting to click in the air. I’ve added an additional day of aerial training each week, which has really helped build my strength and endurance. My main focus right now is perfecting my act which requires lots and lots of repetition. My coach, Kristi Toguchi, has taught me so much and I am constantly amazed at her skill and patience.
Everything is progressing nicely on the ground. My flexibility is constantly improving and I can now tap dance on my head 🙂 I’ve been having lots of fun training with the other girls as I am quickly learning that getting bendy is better with friends.
Flexibility training with Erica Vanlee and Heather Hyde de Landín at Aerial Fitness
I had my first aerial photo shoot with Beckett Studios at the end of October and got some really great images. I’m also working on a few cool aerial costumes and I can’t wait to take photos wearing them!
I’ve been documenting my progress quite a bit. You can check out more photos and videos over at my Instagram account.