Friendship Feed

The 'COVID Cabana' Might Just Save Us All

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We outfitted our 'COVID Cabana' space with old lawn furniture, a tiki bar from a friend, and an area rug. All photos by Sue Frause.

By Sue Frause

When the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the United States in January of 2020, my husband and I were mildly concerned. But even more so when the first confirmed case in the U.S. was diagnosed in our home state of Washington. That patient was being treated at Providence Medical Center in Everett, less than an hour away from our home on Whidbey Island. It was a little too close for comfort. In March 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee initiated a Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in our state to fight the virus. And since then we’ve been adhering to the basic guidelines of wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet apart. Plus a whole lot more. 

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Kids to the rescue again, donating a BAR sign they didn't have room for. Farmer Bob outfitted it with lights.

Summer was easy, as we spent a lot of time outdoors, occasionally gathering with family and friends at our home or theirs. But when the cool, wet weather of autumn arrived, all that changed. It was the season to hunker on down indoors. Which for us, meant not having friends or family over for in-house gatherings, and not going to theirs. It was going to be a long winter.  

Gas Fire
Our son and his wife gave us their never-been-used gas fire pit to cozy up the space. S'mores, anyone?

 Here on Whidbey Island and beyond, along with the proliferation of alfresco dining options, people were creating outdoor spaces where gatherings would be much safer than in their homes. That’s when I realized we had the perfect space to put together a venue where we could invite folks over to share a glass of wine or two. Our Covid Cabana was born! 

Barn
Farmer Bob's barn was built in 2005 with the help of friends and relatives. Our Covid Cabana may be seen in the forefront before it was transformed.

Its location was ideal - a 7 x 14 ft. covered area off the side of our barn. When we built the barn in 2005, the original plan was for the space to house our chickens. But my husband, aka Farmer Bob, soon realized it wouldn’t be such a great spot for a flock of egg-laying hens. So over the years, it has morphed from a carport to a storage area for picnic tables, lawn furniture, and our tiki bar. A loft above it housed even more outdoor goods. 

Wine Room
Farmer Bob created this temperature-controlled wine room located inside the barn, just steps away from our Covid Cabana.

 But in November, all that changed when we transformed the catch-all space into a cozy Covid Cabana. The best part of the process was being able to use everything we had - we spent zero dollars in creating a comfortable space for up to six people. Here’s what we recycled:

  • Two teak benches that seat four, with a matching coffee table
  • Two outdoor chairs
  • Area rug
  • Tiki bar with two stools 
  • Bar sign
  • Strings of lights on a dimmer
  • Gas fire pit 
  • Grapevine wreath

When summer arrives in June of this year, Farmer Bob plans to build and install six barn doors on the two open sides -- making it an all-season, indoor/outdoor space. And I’m hopeful that sooner than later, we can change its name from Covid Cabana to … Cozy Cabana!

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Sue Frause is a prolific, long-time journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in print and online in the U.S. and abroad. For 15 years, she wrote an award-winning column for The South Whidbey Record. She currently writes not one, not two, but three blogs: Eat|Play|Sleep, Closet Canuck, and married to martha. She is also a regular on Around the World Radio. In her many travels, she's visited all seven continents, but her favorite place in the world is right there on Whidbey Island.

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The Perfect Valentine's Day Gift: A 'Queen's Gambit' Chess Experience

Chess Set
A vintage Soviet-era set.

By Lisa Brunette

I don't think I'm overstating it to say that The Queen's Gambit is the best series Netflix has ever offered. Anthony and I finished it last night, and wow. I can't think of a better viewing experience. It has everything: a gorgeously flawed heroine you can't help but root for, well-developed supporting characters, a story arc that manages to be surprising and satisfying in one go, and a stream of sumptuous sets and costumes (especially in the later episodes). Judging by its enormous popularity - it's the most-watched show in Netflix history - many of you feel the same. 

If you've just binged it yourself, you might be looking for a way to extend the good feels, but with no plans for a season two - that arc was magically complete - I suggest in place of further bingewatching, you bring chess into your life as a special Valentine's Day experience. The classic two-person game is the perfect way to show your loved one you want to spend quality time together.

As it so happens, I did a deep-dive into the Etsy vintage chess offerings in search of a post-Christmas birthday present for Anthony. After an exhaustive search, I settled on the set above. This was before we watched The Queen's Gambit, so it was by serendipity that I'd picked out a classic Soviet-era set reminiscent of the sets depicted in the final episodes of the show. This one's from the 90s, but it has the same reverse detailing you can see in the queen and king in both black and white, and it's carved from wood.

Chess Set Black

Chess Set White

Now Anthony's a fervent tabletop gamer, and chess is soundly in his wheelhouse. But as surprising as this might sound since I literally own a game-writing studio, I'd never played before! But now I can cross that one off my bucket list. I'm an instant fan, for the combination of strategy and concentration. I love it.

Which is a good thing, because look how happy Anthony is with his new chess set.

Chess Anthony

While mine was the only one of its kind available, don't worry, as there are plenty of other options to choose from. If you like the vintage Soviet-era style, the Etsy shop ChessUSSR offers several, including this beauty, an antique set from the 1950s.

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Image courtesy ChessUSSR.

ChessUSSR also sells those delightful Mid-Century Modern chess clocks, as seen in nearly every episode of The Queen's Gambit. The vintage ones are rare items and don't come cheap, but for you hardcore chessheads out there, why not help preserve a piece of chess history? If you're going for the complete Valentine's Day experience, get the chess set plus the clock. It'll add to the ambiance!

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Image courtesy ChessUSSR.

If the Soviet style isn't your cup of tea, here are a few options that take the chess aesthetic in a completely different direction. 

First, I had this hand-carved stone Mexican set favorited for quite some time because, you know, PINK. But this was a gift for Anthony, not me, and while he's the type of awesome guy who doesn't even flinch at some pink in his living room, I do know where to draw the line. But maybe it's just the thing for your valentine?

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Image courtesy TeotihuacanMxArt2.

Next up is an incredible mesh of nature and games. Plants and flowers are sealed in epoxy to create these whimsical pieces that are just as pretty for display as they are pleasing to play. They are handmade, unique, and nature-inspired, so I felt they deserve inclusion. For the gardener/nature-lover valentine on your mind, they're perfect.

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Image courtesy EncasingNature.

Finally, staying with the handmade ethos, I offer you this set, hand-carved from olive wood for a sort of Game of Thrones-meets-The Queen's Gambit vibe. It was my runner-up choice, as it's just so gorgeous and yet... dare I say... manly? 

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Image courtesy MbgArtGift.

To complete your Valentine's Day 'Queen's Gambit' experience, how about some chess-themed cookies? I stumbled onto this cool set of cookie cutters fashioned with the help of a 3-D printer. While I wish they were metal instead of plastic, they're still on my favorites list because Valentine's Day is coming up, and Anthony's never met a cookie he hasn't liked...

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Image courtesy EZHCookieCutters.

I've included affiliate links in this post, so if you purchase via the links, Cat in the Flock may get a commission. But the truth is I would've happily crafted this roundup even without the affiliate bump. Many of our small, independent operators are the ones who've suffered during the COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, so I'm only too happy to support their work. But this ain't charity, either; I've become more and more aware of the superiority of handmade and vintage items and am happy to turn you onto some great things you might love, too.

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Welcome (Virtually) to Our Home for the Holidays!

Xmas_Window

By Lisa Brunette

One of the fun activities Anthony and I participated in pre-COVID-19 was the holiday parlor tour here in St. Louis' Lafayette Square neighborhood. It was a treat to tour historic homes - some dating as far back as before the Civil War - all done up for the holidays. We look forward to a day when such in-person events are possible again. In the meantime, we've given the 116-year-old Dragon Flower Farmhouse a holiday makeover and invite you to tour it from the comfort and safety of your own living room.

Fa-La-La-Llama

Speaking of comfort, the below llama pillow comes out only for the holidays... I'm not sure why a pink llama says Christmas, but it certainly does. As you might have learned from our last post on the living room makeover, we've got complementary colors pink and green in the main downstairs space. Complementary means they're opposites on the color wheel, and that makes them a vibrant pairing, as in the pink pillow on chartreuse here.

Llama pillow

The llama theme is echoed in the Christmas tree, as a key ornament. I've hung this one and a couple of other ornaments behind the tree to make the smallish tree seem a bit grander, as well as fill the blank walls left when I removed an antique leather whip and two vintage family photos that didn't look right as backdrop for ol' tannenbaum.

Xmas_OrnamentWall

The tree is strung with white lights and colors that harmonize with the room's palette: pink, green, white, gold, and natural tones from straw and wood. Rather than spending a lot of money just to color-coordinate a tree, I simply split our ornament collection into two categories, these muted tones and another crop all in primary colors, which fit the smaller tree in the dining room. But before I move onto that room, I want to linger here a bit in the living room, with of course the mantel as the focal point.

This Mantel Moment

Xmas_Mantel

I really love how the mantel looks for the holidays. The candelabra on the left is a vintage 1960s Brutalist design, which I found at a tiny thrift window shop that used to be part of a sweet little café owned and run by two women in Chehalis, Wash. The mercury glass candle holders are from World Market, and the brass deer is an antique mall find. I wish I could say I made the stockings myself, but they're from Etsy. (At least I hung them with care!). Yes, Chaco gets a stocking... what did you expect? Zander has one, too, but he's staying in Seattle for the holidays. 

The cube vase on the left is a collectible piece of memorabilia - a brick from the old St. Louis Arena, a major concert and sporting venue for 70 years before it was imploded in 1999. The other vase is handcrafted by an artist, but I picked it up at an antique mall on the cheap and unfortunately don't know anything about who made it.

Here's a variation on the mantel from 2019, with the Brutalist candelabra replaced with a star hurricane lamp, and the balance shifted.

Mantel 2019

Ornament Lament

Thinking about that Arena brick puts me in the mindset to share this holiday tragedy. You see, I went to a good number of heavy metal concerts at that place back in the day, but one of the acts I did not see was Kiss. I've related the whole story previously on the blog, but basically my parents were super strict sort of beyond reason, and they would not allow me to go to this particular Kiss concert in the late 80s, which would have been something to remember and tell your kids about, you know? What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament, gifted to me by my friend Alyssa Naumann back in the 90s, after she heard my Kiss concert sob story and wanted to give me something to make up for the loss. 

Kiss Ornament

Yeah, that's a Rock and Roll Over Kiss ornament right there, and you'll notice up above I used past tense: What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament... Past tense because a day or two after I took this photo, Chaco BROKE it. My wonderful Kiss ornament, which I have looked forward to getting out each Christmas for the past 25 years, on the floor, shattered to bits. Because of the CAT.

Words were said, my friends, and a grudge was held... for at least an hour, anyway. Chaco wormed his way back in pretty quickly, I have to admit.

Sigh. 

Red Tree

Have a Ball

The Kiss ornament was on the 'red' tree in the dining room, where a brighter palette prevails, all inspired by the ironic and iconic Miss Fortunato painting, done by Monica Mason, the wife of an old colleague of mine from the St. Louis Science Center. It was part of a series on circus side show acts; Miss Fortunato is "the luckiest woman in the world," because she's so beautiful, all manner of butterflies flock to her face, as if it's a flower (obscuring her face from the viewer). This painting originated in St. Louis, has traveled with me to Miami, Florida, and Seattle, Wash., and has now returned to just a few blocks from the home where it first hung. It fits well in between the moulding detail.

Here we are, all ready for a small dinner party before the holidays. The wool felt balls are from World Market (I can't help it; I'm a fan), and the turquoise table settings are Fiestaware. The vintage side cabinet is probably from the 1940s and was left behind by the previous owner of my house in Tacoma; I added heavy caster wheels and painted it black (it had been puke pink). The top comes off but was damaged in our last move, alas. The pewter candle holders in the two paneled areas are from my sister, Amy, who had them in her home for many years and then kept them in storage after the glass hurricanes broke and her décor changed. When she saw our dining room, she realized they'd be perfect, and she is right.

Dining Room Xmas

This dining room is actually next up for renovation, as that aforementioned brown paint is on full display here, too, covering all of the window and doorway trim, as well as a chair rail that runs the length of the room, which you can see above. We're thinking about a deep blue-green, as this room faces southeast, gets plenty of light, and could handle a darker hue. I'm considering painting the walls, trim, and the above white cutouts all the same color, for a more dramatic, rich effect. Maybe even the ceiling? What do you think? My brother keeps crying 'earth tones,' but that's not really my jam.

That concludes our virtual tour. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate the holiday. And to all, may 2021 bring you peace, happiness, and the freedom and safety to go... maskless!

Note: This post contains an Etsy affiliate link, but all other recommendations are non-sponsored.

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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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Around the World with Ernest and Friends - 'Fly Brother' Airs on Public TV, Create TV


Around the World with Ernest and Friends - 'Fly Brother' Airs on Public TV, Create TV

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Ernest White II in Mongolia.

 

Editor's note: You know it's a thrill when a friend makes it to the big time. I've known Ernest White since the two of us were in grad school together for creative writing, both trying to turn our lives into art. We've stayed in touch ever since - across multiple time zones, career changes, and major life events. I've loved watching him evolve from writer to multimedia storyteller. I'm over-the-moon excited to bring you this announcement about his debut public TV series, Fly Brother. Here's Ernest.

By Ernest White II

It may seem odd to launch a new travel television program in a year when travelers are grounded with canceled and postponed plans to traipse around the planet. For my TV debut, the timing may not have been perfect, but it did give a new sense of meaning to my work. 

Fly Brother with Ernest White II is a new travel docu-series available in the United States on Public Television Stations and Create TV nationwide. The show follows my travels around the globe meeting with real-life friends and getting a local’s perspective as they show me around their home cities. In each episode, I visit their favorite hotels, restaurants, social haunts, and more. Throughout the season, we see festivities, food, and fun, but also the friendship that proves the whole world is our tribe.

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Ernest and friends Michael Childress and Ana Ayala.

Season one takes viewers to Brazil, Canada, Georgia, Namibia, Sweden, Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan, South Africa, Colombia, and Morocco. My friends and I chase sunsets in Cape Town, twirl to the samba beats of São Paulo, explore the jazzy side of Stockholm, and much more. As the world begins to reopen to tourism, I'm also making plans to (safely) film a second season filled with even more unique experiences. 

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In the Northern Flatlands of Namibia.

Beyond allowing viewers to ease the pangs of wanderlust, the show focuses on the power of connection and friendship through travel. As a gay, Black American man, I left the U.S. for a decade in search of adventure and community. I've circumnavigated the globe six times, befriending people of all walks of life along the way. It was during those travels that I realized that everyone—myself included—wants the same things in life: to be seen, empowered, and loved. It’s my life mission to express this love and sense of community through storytelling. As the world reckons with its problematic past and present, making an effort to build a better future, this unique message of interconnectedness is needed now more than ever.

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Hong Kong.

The series first started airing on Public Television Stations this past spring and then made its national cable debut on Create TV in August. The show airs on Mondays at 10:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. EDT. But don’t worry if you’ve already missed out on a few episodes. Create TV will re-air each episode of season one October 19th, so you can be a part of all the fun from the beginning, starting with one of my favorite cities and my former home for several years: São Paulo, Brazil. 

Sao Paulo by Rodrigo Soldon
São Paulo. Image credit: Rodrigo Soldon via Flickr.

For more information on the show, including how you can catch the latest episode in your area, sign up for the Flight List at flybrother.net

About Ernest White II

Ernest is a storyteller, explorer, executive producer, and host of television travel docu-series FLY BROTHER with Ernest White II, currently airing in the United States on Public Television Stations and Create TV nationwide. He is also founder and CEO of Presidio Pictures, a new film, television, and digital media studio centering BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and senior/elder narratives. Ernest’s writing includes fiction, literary essay, and travel narrative, having been featured in Time Out London, USA Today, Getaway, Ebony, The Manifest-Station, Sinking City, Lakeview Journal, Matador Network, National Geographic Traveler’s Brazil and Bradt’s Tajikistan guidebooks, and at TravelChannel.com. He is also senior editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy.

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