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Why 'Cat in the Flock'?

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A cat in the middle of a flock of birds can be a threat... or not, if the cat puts its teeth and claws away and just watches. It's an apt metaphor for our role as beings in the middle of nature: We can either choose to stow our claws and teeth or bare them, threateningly. Anthony and Lisa also know that much of what you'll read out there about home, garden, and health is based on rampant consumerism, and it's neither good for you nor the planet, and that goes for a lot of so-called eco-friendly pursuits. So we think of Cat in the Flock as "lifestyle with teeth," seriously cutting against that trend.

And we recognize that people are, frankly, natural predators. We take and use and exploit, rarely giving back. But we want to encourage a greater harmony with all things, to ask our fellow humans to join us in treading more lightly, and to work toward greater independence, sustainability, and self-sufficiency in the process. As we sit quietly amidst the tempting flock, we invite you to do the same. Read more about our project on the About page.

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'Cat in the Flock' Featured on Shoutout Miami!

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By Lisa Brunette

Though I call the Midwest my home and the Pacific Northwest my second home, my writing chops were forged during the two years I attended graduate school for an MFA in creative writing at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. That tropical locale made its mark on me in more ways than one. When I close my eyes and travel back to the Miami of my memories twenty years ago, I'm awash in sensations: the flash of shocking royal blue as a flock of wild macaws flies overhead; the salty scent of the sea breezes, carrying hints of spicy aromas from Caribbean flora; the staccato rhythms of samba, salsa, and Cuban rhumba blasting from open cabana bars and car windows.

My second novel, Framed and Burning, is set in Miami, and if pushed to say so, I think it's my best of the series. It captures the light and dark sides of Miami's culture, the authentic and the plastic, the natural and unnatural.

So it's a terrific honor to have Shoutout Miami publish a full feature on Cat in the Flock - as well as my day job biz, Brunette Games: "Meet Lisa Brunette: Novelist, Blogger, and Game Storyteller." The feature is part of a series on "Thinking through the first steps of starting a business." Those featured in the series with me include an art dealer, a fitness coach, an interior designer, and more.

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Miami keeps wanting to claim me.

Three years ago, I was the subject of another Miami-themed feature story, this time in VoyageMIA, "Conversations with the Inspiring Lisa Brunette." It's been instructive to compare where I was then to where I am now. Brunette Games has grown from a solo act to a team of 10 (five writers, five voice actors), and Cat in the Flock has fully morphed into a lifestyle blog with seven authors writing at a rate of one article per week.

One thing that hasn't changed: I can still manage the inversion pose that tops the VoyageMIA piece (also below), only these days I give Anthony's back a break and use my FeetUp yoga prop instead.

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From back in our acroyoga days.

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Cat in the Flock's Most Popular Posts of All Time

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Repurposed frying pan bird bath.

 By Lisa Brunette

Cat in the Flock turns seven this year, so it's a good time to take a look at where we've been and what's resonated with you readers. What a wild ride we've had together! I launched this website in September 2014 as an author blog to support the release of my first novel, Cat in the Flock. That self-published mystery novel was enough of a success to warrant a whole series - the Dreamslippers - and the blog focused on it for the first few years. But then around 2017 I took my experience as a game storyteller and fused it with the work of mystery novelist to create two interactive novels in the mystery genre, and my game writing splashed onto this blog as a result. With the success of the game projects, I had the opportunity to launch my own game-writing company in short order, and in 2018, I split off Brunette Games as its own site. That left Cat in the Flock, which I pivoted toward the lifestyle content I'm passionate about, giving me a counterpoint outlet for the non-fiction stories I think about every day.

And Cat in the Flock is growing. As I mentioned when I listed our top five posts for 2020, last year we had seven writers produce a total of 52 posts. While monetization continues to prove tricky and elusive, we've enjoyed the opportunity to share the story of our quarter-acre suburban homestead and our quest to become more self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable, along with a broadening offering of others' stories of trial and triumph. 

So which missives stand out the most over the past seven years? I've kept track of analytics for the whole span, and I can tell you which of our posts had the highest number of page views, a good indicator of how popular they are with readers. Here they are, starting with No. 5.

No. 5 - The Birds Win Big

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Bird bath made from tempered glass pot lid and breeze block.

Our most-viewed post of 2020 is also the fifth most popular post of all time: Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure. Especially in a year of extreme homeboundedness, the thought of quickly crafting attractive bird baths from castoffs you might have in your basement just struck a chord. We're happy to see the enthusiasm, as it's a huge win for the birds if more people put out and maintain bird baths.

No. 4 - A Born Entrepreneur?

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The interactive novel I designed and wrote for Daily Magic Productions.

Next up is a longform piece I wrote to explain the one-eighty I took in 2018 from professor to full-time small business owner. While it's really more of an origin story, if you will, for Brunette Games, I've kept it here on the CITF blog for posterity. It's an interesting read, if you're curious about the vicissitudes of publishing, the game industry, and business startups. While I've always thought of myself more as a creative-for-hire than an entrepreneur, and I don't even take the CEO title at the helm of BG, it's good to think about what makes me the type of person who consistently chooses to leave academia for the private sector, where, to quote one of my favorite classic movies, "They expect results."

No. 3 - Slip into My Dream

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Cover art for my first novel.

Considering that the whole reason for this blog's existence is the Dreamslippers mystery series, I guess I would've been disappointed if none of it had made it to the top five. But here at a solid No. 3 is the landing page for the series, a jumping-off point for each of the three novels, plus the boxed set with bonus novella. This year also marks the seventh anniversary of the release of the first novel in the series.

No. 2 - No Yoga Comparathons!

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My stepson, Zander, who's double-jointed, and me, who's not.

The top two posts of all time both share yoga as a theme, and they both bust some faulty assumptions about the ancient practice. In second place is Why You Shouldn't Compare Yourself to Yogi Superstars. In it I illustrate how body structures built into us from birth can largely determine what our yoga capabilities are, and no amount of yoga can ever change them. For example, in the side-by-side above, my stepson, Zander, who's double-jointed, can pop into reverse prayer pose despite nary a lick of yoga experience; whereas, I still find the pose challenging after 25 years of practice.

Yoga's dirty secret is that it can devolve into a high-pressured environment of endless yardstick-measuring, so I'm glad to see this piece, which published in March 2019, has legs.

No. 1 - The Real Reason You Can't Headstand

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Anthony and I demonstrating why props - even human ones! - make all the difference.

This might be the best article I've ever written for Cat in the Flock, and readers seem to agree. Like the above post on anatomical limitations to yoga poses, this one tackles some pretty damaging myths about inversions like handstand and headstand. I don't pull any punches about the irresponsible methods of some yoga teachers in shaming or guilting students into pushing themselves to get into poses that might be completely counter to their body's own structure and alignment. And hopefully, I've set quite a few yogis free with this declaration.

Do these results surprise you? What would you like to see us delve into on the blog in the future? Weigh in below!

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Cat in the Flock's Top 5 Posts of 2020. No. 1 Is for the Birds!

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Milkweed seed pod on a rose bush.

By Lisa Brunette

Two-oh-two-oh was a surprising year for Cat in the Flock, as between the extensive lockdowns and social distancing measures and our decision to forgo social media, Anthony and I found ourselves with more time to write. While our day jobs at Brunette Games never ceased, as its already established remote-work structure allowed us to continue working without fail, we saw family and friends less often, and most interesting activities outside the home were either canceled outright or made less attractive due to the requirement to wear masks and social distance. So, we opted to stay in. We published more on this blog in 2020 than anticipated, with a total of 52 posts, or an average of one per week!

What's most exciting about the past year at Cat in the Flock is that I saw the blog grow beyond me. The responsibility for those 52 posts was shared across 7 different authors. Notably, Anthony joined the fray, and his write-up on our bamboo squash tunnel was one of the most popular of the year. Besides the Anthony-and-Lisa duo here at Cat in the Flock, we also published posts from a former wildlife biologist, two award-winning travel writers, an acupuncturist, and a certified herbalist. One of these also made the top five.

All of our most popular articles share gardening as a theme, and with the combination of our own passions for the subject and a surge in interest due to stay-at-home mandates, it's not surprising to see why. Here are the top five posts judging by total number of page views, starting with fifth on the list and working our way to the top.

No. 5 - Native Plants As the Stars of the Show

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Quercus shumardii, or native Shumard oak, in fall color.

The very first post of 2020 was also our fifth most-viewed: Garden Stars of the Year: How to Win with Native Plants. It's basically a native plant gardening 'how to,' with suggestions for how to go about populating your garden with plants that have evolved to your geographic location's unique ecosystem rather than filling it with a lot of exotics. What can we say? We're still drinking the native plant Kool-Aid. Exotics are harder to care for, and they don't feed native pollinators, birds, or animals anywhere near as well as the plants our native fauna have evolved to consume. To us, going native is a no-brainer.

No. 4 - More Mushroom Mania

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Image courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you hadn't noticed, we're a bit obsessed with mushrooms here at Cat in the Flock, and our fourth most popular post reflects that. "Mushrooms Become Less Mysterious - with the Right Field Guide" is pretty much a love letter to both our stellar Missouri Department of Conservation and the mushroom guide it publishes, Missouri's Wild Mushrooms, by fellow St. Louis writer Maxine Stone. If you're anywhere in the Midwest, I highly recommend the guide.

New to the whole mushroom foraging idea? Check out this great piece by guest blogger Ellen King Rice that breaks down everything you need to know. And for funsies, you might also read our further account of mushroom foraging right here in the back 40 for the delicious and plentiful 'shroom known as reddening lepiota.

No. 3 - Farmer Bob's Jam

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Bob Frause in the garden. Photo by Sue Frause.

Over Sue Frause's long, award-winning career as a travel and lifestyle feature writer, she's amassed quite a following, which partly explains the popularity of the post coming in at the No. 3 spot, On Whidbey Island with 'Farmer Bob' and His Inspiration Garden. But I also think that asking a travel writer who's written about places hither and yon to turn inward toward her own backyard yielded just a truly wonderful piece about gardening, family, and what it means to call a place home. She mentioned to me how surprised she was by the response, and I believe her readers were hungry for this self-made profile.

The Frause's Whidbey Island garden is a very special place, just perfect for our regular 'inspiration garden' feature. It's inspired me ever since I had the pleasure of staying there back in 2008, and it continues to remind me of what's possible. 

No. 2 - Long Live the Squash Tunnel!

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Anthony and the freshly made bamboo tunnel.

As I mentioned above, Anthony's bamboo squash tunnel piece received quite a bit of attention, boosting it to second place for the year. It's possible that in a gardening-focused time of high unemployment, the prospect of a free bamboo tunnel for veggies was too strong to resist. 

Tragically, the squash tunnel fell victim to one of our dramatic Midwestern summer storms, but for a time, the arch anchored the garden, supporting cucumbers and, of course, squash, as well as providing birds with an interesting place to roost. Besides, it just looked so cool.

No. 1 - This One's for the Birds

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A surprise search-engine darling for us this year is Easy DIY Bird Baths for Your Stay-at-Home Pleasure. It regularly brings in readers in the same vein as the squash tunnel piece, as a highly thrifty way to get out in the garden and do something ecologically minded. 

I think what consistently puts this one ahead is that it's about a good, original idea: to use leftover tempered glass pot lids as reservoirs for bird baths. I've never seen anyone do this before, and it's surprising because it works so well. I still have four variations of them in the garden this winter, and the birds continue to use them on a daily basis. They're easy to clean and care for, and the tempered glass ensures they stand up to the extremes of winter and summer weather.

There you have it. I'm not sure we'll be able to keep up the once-per-week pace in 2021, especially since Cat in the Flock still doesn't earn any income for us. On that note, if you're a fan of our content, consider popping a few into our tip jar - and tell your friends about us. The more the merrier in this flock!

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Our Year without Social Media (During a Pandemic)

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Image by William Iven from Pixabay

By Lisa Brunette and Anthony Valterra

In September 2019, we made the choice to ditch social media, and after a year without it, neither of us plans to go back. Here's why.

First, some background. We closed all social media accounts we held both individually and for this blog across all platforms late last summer, and we haven't been back even so much as to peep at a notification once. This includes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the three platforms we used. There's only one small exception: Out of business necessity, we kept our individual and company pages for Brunette Games active on LinkedIn.

To illustrate our decision to forgo social media, we'll break this down according to the prevailing reasons people give for participating in the first place.

To Stay in Touch with Family and Friends

Over the past year, we've returned to our pre-social media modes of keeping in touch with our people, which is to say in a much more meaningful, concentrated manner. We both find that one-on-one conversations in person or on the phone, or chats during family gatherings, are much higher quality engagements than anything that transpires online. Without Facebook to give you the illusion that you're really "in touch," you're apt to make more authentic gestures toward fostering those relationships. 

These conversations are also done with the express purpose of talking with the friend or family member rather than on display for a public audience. When Anthony talks to his pal Doug on the phone or Lisa's hiking in the woods with her brother, those dialogues feel more genuine; we're talking to the other person, and the conversation is just that, not something filtered and curated for public consumption.

About half-way through our yearlong social media hiatus, the pandemic hit, making in-person gatherings much more difficult, if not outright impossible. But we weren't tempted at all to return to the social media fray. We had more phone conversations than social engagements and didn't see that Facebook or any of the other platforms had anything to offer that would somehow make that better. Lisa even took the opportunity to strike up a handwritten letter penpal exchange with an old friend from high school, and that alone has been a much more powerful reconnection than her previous 11 years of social media participation, all total.

For Anthony, these phone conversations are broader, richer, and deeper than social media activity, as he gets the full story from beginning to end, not some snippet crafted for a general audience. For Lisa, sharing is much more satisfying one-on-one because she gets to share her news herself instead of guessing or hoping at who's going to see it in their Facebook feed, or feeling oddly caught-off-guard when someone mentions something they saw on Facebook.

Social media wasn't really built to keep people in touch, and it massively fails at it. It's a thousand times more satisfying for Lisa to connect with her nieces in person than to simply look at pictures of them online. The former is intimate, specific, and based on a human give and take; the latter is a catalogue stream meant for "everyone," yet satisfying few.

To those who say, "But I have to keep track of all 567 friends, and I can't have phone calls with all of them," we counter with this: Do you really need to keep track of that many people? Folks used to lose touch with each other naturally, and for good reason: You drift apart, find different interests, grow and change. And that's OK.

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Image by William Iven from Pixabay

To Connect with Likeminded Strangers

This is one we often hear, that you can't leave social media because of your essential involvement in XYZ group dedicated to rare lichens or commiserating on what it's like to be the only knitter in your family. Our observation on this point is twofold. First, good luck making that into a real connection. Facebook, for example, will thwart your attempts, driving you toward what monetizes best for Facebook, which leads us to point two. In our experience, that tends to be the lowest common denominator post or comment thread, the one everyone's jumping on because someone was offended. We've seen even the best-moderated groups, such as one devoted to native plant gardening, devolve into toxicity.

The caveat here is that if you're like Lisa's sister, who spends her days wrangling other people's children as a child care provider, you might welcome the time to connect quietly online, to other adults talking about adult things. We get that. But if you're a desk jockey like us, your life is already full of online interaction, so the last thing you need is more of it.

COVID-19 has definitely made it more difficult to meet people in real life, but we've persevered with affiliations such as our local Chamber of Commerce or small groups who gather outdoors, social distancing, to discuss a particular topic (for us, life after Peak Oil). Lisa recently instituted "walk and talks" with our employees at Brunette Games to get face time with a little fresh air and exercise.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To Network or Advertise

In our experience, outside of LinkedIn, social media actually has low value as a networking tool. It's mainly used for rather covert investigations prior to a job search/hire, or in Anthony's case, to learn all he could about a person in a decision-making capacity on a grant. As far as networking goes, there's no substitute for in-person experience working on a team, or remote collaborative work made possible through shared documents, video calls, and chats, done over a length of time. None of this occurs via social media.

Social media advertising is fraught with difficulty as you might amass thousands of followers only to find that none of them will see your post unless you pay to "boost" it. Outlinks from the platforms to your blog or website are aggressively punished by the alogrithms. Studies show people are more likely to act on something they read on a blog than via social media anyway, so increasingly, smart people are asking, "Why bother?"

Now for Some of the 'Real' Reasons People Can't Leave Social Media

Besides the evil evilness of the platforms themselves, there are unstated but very real reasons people (including ourselves at various times in the past) participate: validation, reward, and the ability to act out.

It's been shown that human beings get a dopamine hit whenever we see a 'like' or comment on our posts. Taking that a step further, social media fosters a false sense of validation, teaching us to seek reinforcement of our thoughts and beliefs, the algorithm built to cater to them rather than challenge them. Social media platforms are a steady stream of virtue signaling and armchair activism, rewarding users for these rather empty activities. But the fact is that changing your profile photo is not the same thing as getting yourself into a position to hire a diverse team of workers and then doing it, or reducing the amount of fossil fuels you consume on an annual basis, or taking a refugee into your own home, just to give a few examples of real social change. 

Possibly the darkest aspect to social media is the way it encourages acting out. We've both witnessed friends of ours say things to each other in comments that they would never utter in person. The veil of online 'unrealness' provides tacit permission for bad behavior.

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Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

A Side of Evil Sauce to Go with Your Evil Evilness

Social media provides an escape, true - you can focus on other people's lives if you want, voyeuristically going along as they eat, sleep, and play. But what you're experiencing is often an idealized version of their lives, and who can compete with that? You see only your very real, messy life, not any of their very real, messy lives. It's a comparathon that's destined to end badly. Some of us tend to over-identify with those other lives on the screen, and this is more common than you think; Anthony and Lisa have both either been guilty of this or the target of this at different points in our social media lives. It's a negative feedback loop that monetizes for the platforms: We feel lonely, so we log on, we see other people living fantastic lives, and we feel bad about ourselves, and Facebook is collecting tons of information about us, so they know exactly what to try to sell us on the promise that we will feel better. That vicious cycle then repeats endlessly. 

'[Insert Platform] Doesn't Take That Much Time'

This is something we both assumed prior to leaving social media, and it's deceptively easy to think it's true, as you tell yourself you're checking in only short bursts throughout the day. However, those short bits add up significantly. In the five months after exiting social media, in the time she recovered by not checking Facebook and Instagram every day, Lisa read not one Jane Austen novel, not two, but the classic British author's entire oeuvre. And this was before the pandemic. Anthony estimates he's tripled the number of books that he would normally read over a year's time.

The two of us never tell anyone they should get off social media or judge others for staying on or even say a word about it, yet when people hear we've left it, they immediately get defensive. Kind of like a junkie about his need for a fix. "It's totally fine as long as you moderate it," people say, apropos to nothing we've said. This makes us think it's really, really hard for many people to even contemplate a life without it, and that's... not... good. So for that reason, we're putting social media in the same category as cigarettes. Sure, smoking a cigarette feels good and cool and fun and all those things, and it used to be true that "everyone" was doing it. But now we all know it can kill you. And not just you, but the people around you, inhaling your fumes.

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