Lisa Brunette

Welcome (Virtually) to Our Home for the Holidays!

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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.

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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

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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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A Peek Inside Our Sloooow Living Room Redo - Finally Finished This Fall!

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By Lisa Brunette

We just passed the three-year mark here at the Dragon Flower Farmhouse, and I'm excited to announce that the living room is finally 'done.' And it only took us two years

I realize that timeline flies in the face of every home improvement reality show HGTV has ever aired, not to mention every slick interior design blogger claiming to have completely redone a whole house in one weekend, etc. But this is real reality here, folks, and like us, I'm sure you've done your share of slow reno - the kind that takes place in between things like raising children, launching your own business, or planning a wedding. You know, life.

The work began in earnest in the fall of 2018 when we tackled the living room window frames. They were a muddy brown hue, not wood stain but dark brown paint on top of a faded, cracking stain from a previous era. I'm not sure what the developer who flipped the house was thinking, but trying to amend scuffed-up wooden features with a thin layer of brown paint should never have been the solve. For the whole first year, we lived with a bad curtain job as well, high-water drapes on rods drilled right into the moulding. So much wrong, as you can see. Plus that dirt-colored paint had a dreary, darkening effect. 

Living Room Windows Before

I know you're thinking that 'before' shots are always dark and out of focus to make sure the 'after' looks great. But seriously, there was just no brightness to the living room between the wood floors (which we love, but they are dark) and all that muddy paint.

Even though it devoured the room's light, and that black box covering the fireplace hole super depressed me, I always thought the mantel, which as far as we know is original to the house, was a stunner.

Living Room Mantle Before

We chose to go with white to match the trim in other parts of the house. Now I know there are wood purists out there who shudder at the thought of painting wood trim, but we went white with good reason. First of all, the floors. They are original hardwoods, refinished and stained with a deep walnut tint. Natural wood trim paired with them would just seem dull by comparison, and again, together they'd eat the light. White by contrast looks fresh; to use that interior design buzz word, it pops. Second of all, stripping layers of paint over layers of antique stain and then sanding, re-staining, and sealing would have been a nasty, toxic job, and nobody here wanted to do it.

You can see how the white primer already begins to lighten up the room as we transformed the front window frames from dreary to dapper. 

Living Room Painting

By the way, I find Emily Henderson's design blog really helpful when it comes to the right way to hang curtains. Her treatise on the subject, "Hanging Curtains All Wrong" is my repeated go-to. Here's how the windows looked with the fresh coat of paint and new drapes, sized and hung more appropriately. 

Living Room Windows

And that was kind of it for 2018. I founded Brunette Games that year, and going into start-up mode here in middle age proved to be a huge distraction from home improvement. As evidenced by the holiday styling photo below, the mantel was still all chestnut-y for Christmas that year.

Living Room Mantle Before

It remained brown for most of 2019 as well, along with the rest of the trim in the room. Still, I think I was able to do the best with what we had. Early on, I realized I wanted to base the room decor on two paintings given to us by my late mother-in-law. As I mentioned last week, the main inspiration came from the Marta Gilbert painting of a young woman holding a slice of watermelon. Its vibrant pinks really got my imagination going. The other painting is also from A. Grace - a Georgia O'Keefe-esque bloom closeup by the artist Nance Allison Cheek. Here they are side by side.

Living Room 2 Paintings

At this point I'd decided on a pink-and-green color palette for the room. Green is a complementary color to pink, and it pulls in the green tile fireplace surround. It also for me harkens back to the colors of the bedroom from my childhood, when my mother called the décor shots. The interim green and pink living room, still waiting to be fully transformed, was a work-in-progress.

Living Room Interim Sweep

Obviously, the mantel and trim needed to be painted, but so did that shelf you see on the right in the photo above. That was an antique mall find, and with its redwood stain, it just didn't fit.

In late fall 2019, we had a string of days warm enough to open the windows for ventilation, and we found a pocket of time to complete the painting. We also scored big on some winter clearance sales, so we splurged on half-price bookshelves and chairs. We got everything done in time to host Christmas at our place. But the last piece of the puzzle didn't fall into place until this fall, when we swapped out the curtains - the navy blue arrow pattern didn't mesh with the green-and-pink plan - and painted the vintage swirl lamp pink. Now the room is officially done.

Living Room Left

Living Room Transom

Why does pink work in this living room? It's a good question. First, green is a complementary color, which means it's opposite on the color wheel. That provides great balance to the vivid blushes. Second, I've included a lot of masculine elements so the room doesn't feel too girly. There's a brass cobra candlestick on the mantle, a pair of horse head bookends on a shelf, one of the side tables has pointed arrow feet, there's a shield adorning the fireplace, and we've hung a leather whip on the wall.

Living Room Mantle
The cobra candlestick and that shield emblem give the room a manly touch. For Halloween fun, I added a spider, too.
Living Room Whip
Anthony found the whip on a tour of his father's childhood home town. Surrounding it are photos of his ancestors.
Living Room Horses
Horse heads: SO Jane Austen.

I also think the brass, marble, and gold accents ground the room with a little adult luster. It never feels like a kid's space, which is not to say that my six-year-old niece doesn't adore the pink. 

Living Room_Bracket

Besides the twin chartreuse chairs and bookshelves, which we picked up just before Christmas when no one is buying furniture and everything tends to be redline clearanced, the only thing we purchased for the renovation was the primer and paint. To get a consistent color palette, we drew on those two paintings we already owned, and then it was a matter of pulling from our own collection of items picked up over years. One suggestion I have is to move through your home looking for items by color and not being afraid to repurpose them in a different room. That's how I gathered together most of the green and pink things in the living room now. 

Living Room Details

To keep the room from feeling matchy-matchy, I brought in hues from across the spectrums for pink and green. And I kept brass, gold, and the white of marble and stone as accent colors. Since the bookshelves we scored were the same walnut shade as the floors, I foregrounded white objects against that background, as in this stone sculpture and ceramic bowl pairing.

Living Room Shmoo

All in all, I have to say that spacing out a reno over two years is actually a good way to do this. It allows you to live with your decisions piece by piece, with enough time to edit, alter, and tweak as you go. It's also fun to let your wanderings through junk shops and antique malls inspire you. While everything else came with us from the Pacific Northwest, those horse head bookends are new acquisitions, as are many of the holiday accents you'll see in my next post.

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Super-Easy DIY Rehab of This Sweet Mid-Century Modern Swirl Lamp

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By Lisa Brunette

I've been obsessed with so-called 'Millennial pink' for some time now, and I'm not even a Millennial. My pink preoccupation reached its zenith this fall when I finally got around to rehabbing a Mid-Century Modern swirl lamp I'd rescued from a junk shop. And how delicious is that sweet lamp? It's like Willy Wonka meets 'I Dream of Jeannie.'

True Millennial pink, however, is the pastel version, which you can see in that coaster next to the lamp above. A note about that coaster: It's actually a 1920s vintage enamel ash tray made across the river in Belleville, Illinois (where I went to high school), possibly at a company called Peerless-Premier, which still exists. But I opted for Barbie pink as a reference to the focal point in our living room, a painting given to us by Anthony's mother when she died in 2011. It was painted by the Puerto Vallarta artist Marta Gilbert

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A habit of collecting original art is one of the many things I had in common with Anthony's mother, A. Grace. I've written about her previously on the blog, as she inspired the character Amazing Grace in the Dreamslippers Series. She was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American descent, specifically the Zapateca and Pueblo tribes. Honoring that heritage was central to my design for our living room at Dragon Flower Farmhouse, which I'll show you more of in next week's post. For now let's just say there are pink hues throughout, captured most dramatically in the painting that inspired it all and with this lamp.

I spotted the lamp on the top shelf in a back corner of a junk shop here in Maplewood. (Sadly, the place no longer exists, another pandemic casualty.) The lamp had no shade, and as you can see, the white paint had chipped off in a few places, but I saw a diamond in the rough. It only cost me $7 (USD).

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Its genie-lamp shape really did remind me of the fantasy sit-com from the 60s, 'I Dream of Jeannie.' I'd debated about what color to paint it for some time, as the pink in the living room is balanced against its complementary hue on the color wheel, green. But in the end, the pink won out. Those swirls just take me in a delectable candy direction, and I couldn't fight it. 

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Fortunately, all I needed was enough paint to fill a sample size, so I didn't have to invest in an entire gallon of princess-room pink that I wouldn't otherwise have a use for. (I know; you pink lovers out there are going, 'Oh, but there are so many uses!'). 

There was no need to use spray paint this time, as the ceramic lamp would easily take latex. I always use low-VOC brands, to minimize the off-gassing from the volatile organic compounds in most house paint. 

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It was easy - and fun - to brush this luscious pink onto the lamp, and it only took one coat. I managed this in a weekend afternoon while also making my first sourdough pizza crust from scratch (!), a topic for another post. I used tape around the base of the lamp, but honestly, I wish I hadn't. I always do much better cutting in without painter's tape, which always pulls some of the paint off when I remove it. I have a pretty steady hand and was trained to paint by my ex-husband, an artist and professional painter/exhibit builder. So, yeah, who needed the tape? Not me.

Here's the finished base. 

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After that, all it needed was a shade, which I purchased online, choosing a large white drum style, which to my eye balances that curvy base without detracting from it. The lamp makes me happy every time I look at it, and these days, we could all use little glimpses of joy in our lives. My six-year-old niece squealed when she saw it, too; it's her favorite color, of course.

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What's new in your DIY world? Post pics below.

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My 30-Year Battle with a Disease I Couldn't Name

Lisa Brunette 1989
High school, 1989.

By Lisa Brunette

In my early 20s I wrote for a fledgling arts newspaper here in St. Louis called Intermission Magazine, and one of the columnists was a New Age devotee named Jeannie Breeze. I don't know if 'Breeze' was her real name or a pen name chosen for its metaphorical quality, but my legal last name is Brunette, which is a family name, so anything's possible. Jeannie was a real character; she always wore a purple knit beanie (yes, even in summer), and she fluffed auras for a living when she wasn't penning columns.

Lisa B&W1995
On a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, 1995.

Jeannie once pulled me aside to say she "sensed" the physical pain I was in, and that surprised me because I didn't think I showed any outward signs. Maybe I did and didn't realize it (I'm not known for my poker face), or maybe Jeannie really was "in tune" with this kind of thing. But either way, she did me a real kindness: She gave me a poem called "Putting the Pain to Sleep." In it the speaker sang a lullaby to her pain, as if singing a child to sleep. It was maybe a little hokey for the edgy youth I was at the time, or at least fancied I was, but it helped.  

I've thought about that poem a lot over the years, and I've tried to put to sleep many a pain.

Back then I had two diagnoses for the symptoms I'd experienced since high school: 1) endometriosis and 2) interstitial cystitis (IC). Neither is very easy to talk about. Both center on inherently "embarrassing" parts of the body. The quest for the diagnoses themselves was painful and invasive, involving catheters and laparoscopic cameras and sample pieces of my internal tissue removed for examination. During one particularly painful procedure, a nurse assistant said:

"You just have to ask yourself, Why me? The answer? Because you can take it."  

I did not punch her in the face, but maybe I should have.

Lisa 1997
In 1997.

When a doctor wanted to put me on a drug that would essentially throw my body into 'fake menopause' in my early 20s, I got a second opinion. The new MD tossed out the endometriosis diagnosis but doubled down on IC. There's no cure for it, but we tried all of the available treatments. None of them worked.

Now I'd like to cue a montage sequence spanning more than a decade. It shows me living, laughing, and loving while simultaneously struggling with discomfort and at times acute pain (because that's what we do, right?) I want you to imagine the last UTI you had, how that SUPER sucked for you. Now imagine that's your life. There's no antibiotic for it, no moment of relief, just persistent pain and a blur of time spent in the bathroom.

Which is not to say I didn't have some nice periods of decreased symptoms, and even for brief spells, total remission. A good diet and exercise seemed to help, as well as stress-reduction. Exercise and diet were always easier to control than stress, though. Ya feel me?

Lisa_2002
On a beach in the Florida Keys, 2002.

Complicating the quest for a cure were some other health issues in the form of "allergies." Throughout childhood, I had awful hay fever, and I also often reacted to food with severe heartburn and systemic digestive distress. Attempts to control the reactions through diet were met with little success, though I tried a wheat-free diet for a time. I was also a vegetarian for 13 years and a vegan for a good portion of that, but I was miserable pretty much the whole time on a diet high in beans, nuts, and soy.

Prone to hives and rashes, it was often difficult to pinpoint a trigger for the reaction. Unlike other people I know with distinct food allergies, I didn't react to any food consistently enough to rule out the offenders. I was diagnosed with asthma and given an inhaler for the wheezing and chest congestion and told to take antihistamines for the rhinitis, but there wasn't anything anyone could think to do about the food.

By the time I'd migrated to the Pacific Northwest in my early 30s, my allergies were deemed severe enough to finally get me in to see an allergist. He prescribed an epinephrine pen and put me on a diet of only meat, vegetables, and white rice. But I was still a vegetarian, left with only white rice and vegetables. After developing walking pneumonia, I broke the 13-year meat fast.

Lisa2007
On a Washington state beach, 2007.

At this time I also began to make changes in my environment to reduce allergens. I zipped up the whole bed, box spring and mattress, in a plastic covering; donated rugs, down comforters, and other sneeze-inducing items; and washed all my bedding and towels in hot water. But I swear to this day it was hot yoga that got me out of the allergy loop. After a year of regular Bikram yoga practice, I felt better in all ways, head to toe. 

However, yoga only kept the wolves at bay for so long. After a few years, the allergies resumed even worse than before, despite a regular, committed yoga practice. With them came a new level of digestive distress, along with extreme night sweats, severe insomnia, a crazy amount of ringing in the ears, perceived hearing loss, benign cysts, joint pain, and inflammation.  It's a party all the time when you're giving blood, urine, and stool samples, undergoing procedures like colonoscopy and mammography before you're old enough to warrant them, and then being diagnosed with some third-world, parasitic disease.

Yeah, that's right. I had hookworm.

My MD had missed it; I'd finally resorted to paying out-of-pocket for the services of an irritable bowel disease clinic, which my insurance wouldn't cover. Not even after the hookworm discovery. It's so rare in the States, I had to travel to three different pharmacies to piece together enough of the drug meant to eradicate it. It wasn't that the hookworm infestation caused the other symptoms, though. It was just part of it. The theory was that since my system is always inflamed and reacting to foods, the hookworm somehow took hold and stuck around - for how long was anybody's guess. Hookworm isn't even supposed to survive in cool climates like the Pacific Northwest, and I'd left the tropics of Florida a full decade before this.

Lisa 2013
In 2013.

By my 40s I had to give up fruit juice, I could barely tolerate alcohol, and soy was a huge problem. There seemed to be nothing I could do for the insomnia and night sweats, and I wondered if I were heading into the great 'pause a bit early. The IC roared back with tremendous severity, and a catheter scope (now with video!) found landscapes of scar tissue lining my bladder, including one particularly gnarly beast that looked like the boss at the end of a video game.

Worst for me, the digestive symptoms went into overdrive, and my eyes became increasingly sensitive. Somewhat desperate by this point and not finding a whit of relief though traditional medicine, I tried vitamins and supplements, acupuncture, cleanse diets, the Whole 30, wheat-free/gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free/egg-free/taste-free/satisfaction-free diets. I took up Pilates and dance. I flirted with meditation, joined a spiritual center, and even went to see someone calling himself the "bone whisperer." But things continued to get worse. 

Lisa2016
In 2016, because life's a merry-go-round.

Flash-forward to just two years ago, when I made a last-ditch effort to treat with two things I hadn't yet tried: medicinal herbs and Maya abdominal therapy

You might remember a couple of articles posted this year on the blog from Amanda Jokerst of Forest + Meadow Apothecary and Clinic. She shared her thoughts on how to foster a healthy immune system and how to support your immune system with herbs. I met her at a farmer's market, of all places. The final clue to my lifelong health mystery came from her.

By now you're likely wondering how all of these painful, annoying (though thankfully not life-threatening) symptoms relate to each other. Or maybe you've sussed out that they're all part of the same autoimmune disease. Good job, detective!

After Amanda and I went through - over the course of a year - absolutely every known cause and treatment for what might ail me, she proposed a couple of possible diagnoses:

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).

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Last year.

But of course Amanda will be the first to tell you she isn't a medical doctor. She referred me to a gastroenterologist whose specialty includes both MCAS and SIBO. 

It took me a year to get in because Dr. Leonard Weinstock has a loooong waiting list, and also COVID-19 happened. In the meantime, I tried another, more available general allergist, who was only helpful in a small way, switching my at this point regular antihistamine from Zyrtec to Allegra, which has fewer side effects for me because it doesn't cross the blood/brain barrier. Otherwise, though, I could do nothing but wait.

During that wait, my symptoms worsened further, to the point where I now react to a wide range of health and beauty products and household allergens. Eating in restaurants has become so difficult for me that I don't miss them as much in these lockdowns. 

When I finally got in to see Weinstock, I gained answers to questions I'd had for 30 years. 

Apparently, I'm a "poster child" for MCAS, in his words. After blood and urine tests, as well as a comprehensive review of my medical history, I now have a definitive diagnosis of MCAS. My condition is "clinically significant," and I've been placed in a research study. MCAS is a "spectrum" disorder; we all have mast cells. They're pretty useful for snuffing out foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Mine just behave as if there's always a war going on, and everything that enters is the enemy.

Every one of the symptoms and conditions I've mentioned above, from IC to the food, inhalant, and contact allergies, and including a nasty bout of colic I had as a baby, fall under the MCAS umbrella. 

Lisa 2020
On a Missouri river, 2020.

And the SIBO? Yeah, I have that, too. It often accompanies MCAS and is responsible for the severe bloating I've had (so much fun when people actually think you're pregnant, but you're not). This diagnosis was confirmed through a lactulose breath test. Fortunately, there's a cure for SIBO. It meant taking the same drug used to treat E. coli, a prescription that cost me close to $700 out of pocket. Without insurance, that price tag would've been $2 grand, and that's with a hefty pharmacy discount. Hopefully, SIBO's gone for good.

I'm not happy at all to tell you that MCAS has no cure. The only thing we can do is decrease the symptoms. So I'm trying a medication that works by triggering your body's endorphins as well as supplying a few of its own. Endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give runners a high, tend to get suppressed under MCAS, which is why my reactions often hit extreme on the pain scale. Let's hope that this drug works, and the side effects are minimal.

Because lately, it's been a lot harder to sing the pain to sleep, and that lullaby is sure wearing thin.

Note: Please do not take the information presented here as a cue to self-diagnose. As described above, my diagnosis was arrived at through testing and determination by a medical doctor with a specialty in gastroenterology. It's best to consult your physician with any concerns you might have. That said, be tenacious if you aren't seeing improvement. Medical science is quickly evolving, with new discoveries and answers turning over established ideas all the time. MCAS wasn't really a thing back in the 90s when my own journey began.

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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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