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Happy National Poetry Month! Welcome to Our Great Poetry Giveaway.

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As a welcome gift in honor of National Poetry Month, all new subscribers to our blog newsletter throughout the month of April will automatically receive a FREE ebook copy of Lisa Brunette's award-winning book of poetry, Broom of Anger.

Both new and existing subscribers will also be entered into a drawing to win one of two free signed print copies of Broom of Anger. Drawing to be held in May. The poems in the collection are themed on nature, yoga, trauma, and the healing process. The title is an homage to the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who famously said, "Grab the broom of anger, and drive off the beast of fear!"

So tell your friends to subscribe, and stay tuned for the results of our giveaway! You can also check out some of the poems from the collection as published here at Cat in the Flock:

Moving Away

August

The Open Door

The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

Noticing

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Delicious Patterns


Using the Japanese Art of Kintsugi to Keep Instead of Discard

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By Anthony Valterra

America - land of the free, home of the brave. America's myths tend to center around the idea of resistance. We see ourselves as the lone holdouts. The ones who will stand against tyranny and injustice. We are the brave soldiers of the Revolutionary War standing up to the tyrant King George the III. We stood up to the Nazis and then the USSR. We see ourselves as tough and unmoving. And that is still part of our culture.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world -- "No, YOU move.”

~Captain America~

Around the 1920's Western Civilization started discovering Eastern philosophy. A new way of dealing with events came into being. The concept was that the oak tree breaks in the storm, but the reed bends and springs back. This idea began to become more and more mainstream with the introduction of Confucianism and Taoism. But it really gained ground with the introduction of Eastern-style martial arts such as Tai-Chi, Wing Chun, and Bruce Lee's Jeet Kun Do.

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

~Bruce Lee~

Maybe we have reached the point in our culture where it is time to start looking at a new metaphor. The oak, no matter how strong, can break. And the reed can only bend so far, or it can be cut. In the end we may need to realize that anyone, and anything, can be broken. And once broken, some things can be repaired. But even the best repair will leave evidence of the break. Then what do we do? Right now our culture tends to see the broken and repaired as either something to be ignored, pitied, or tolerated. But what if we saw this process as a natural thing? Everything and everyone will be broken at some point. Nothing is immortal. Nothing is perfect. Perhaps there is a beauty in this process. 

I first encountered the Japanese art of Kintsugi while reading Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan by Azby Brown. Purely by coincidence, Lisa and I  vacationed at the Pacific Coast, and I got to see an example of the art form. It was amazing. I was entranced by what looked like a bolt of gold lightning flashing across a beautiful ceramic bowl. I also loved the idea that what was broken can be mended and be all the more beautiful for enduring that process. 

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. 

~Ernest Hemingway~

Personally, I tend to see the path that our world is on as "unsustainable." Kintsugi touched me on a number of levels all at once. I decide I wanted to share this idea with Lisa. And what better way than giving her an example of the art. Now, I am no artist. But I can "Google" with the best of them, and I found an artist who could do the work. I got Lisa this bowl.

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It is gorgeous. And being a wise and sensitive soul who has had more than her share of brokenness, she loved it. So, much so that this year, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said she wanted the broken pestle of a marble mortar and pestle she owned repaired using the Kintsugi method.

You see... you get something started, and then it's on you to keep it going. But now I was in a pickle. When I bought the bowl above, the artist supplied both the bowl and the repair. This was a particular and personal object. And try as I might, I could not find an artist who would do a commission for anything less than a small fortune.

Remember how I said, "I'm no artist?" Well, needs must. I bought a clear epoxy that was designed for use with stone. Then I bought "gold" metal fine powder. Not real gold. I would have bought real gold, but I couldn't find it in powder form. I mixed the two together, glued the pestle together, and... taa-daa!

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It's not perfect. It has a bit of a junior-high-school-girl-taking-a-home-crafting-class look to it. But Lisa loved it. Because she is wise and sensitive. And because all of us are broken, but when we are repaired by love, we end up all the more beautiful for having undergone that journey.

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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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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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The Secret to Our Six-Pack Marriage

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The Secret to Our Six-Pack Marriage

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By Lisa Brunette

This month marks our sixth anniversary; here we are at our wedding in Seattle back in 2014. I chose this image to front the post because it captures the secret to our success as a couple: We both have a good sense of humor, and we're not afraid to laugh at ourselves, either.

You'd have to be able to chuckle in the face of adversity to weather the slings and arrows of the past six years. It's been a tremendous time of change as we've taken on challenges that seem more befitting twentysomething newlyweds, rather than second-time-around middle-agers like us.

While we married six years ago, we've been a committed couple for nine, and in our first year together, we lost Anthony's mother, A. Grace, to pancreatic cancer.

A truly independent soul, she'd wanted to change her name to just "Grace," but authorities said she had to at least have an initial along with it, so she chose A, and when asked, she would say it stood for "Amazing." So it was with a sense of charmed destiny that we held our wedding at a spiritual center where we'd found community, its name the same as hers.

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Grace made a deep, lasting impression on me in our short time together. Perhaps as a way to keep her with me, I named a major character in my novel series after her. The Dreamslippers series launched the month before our wedding.

A mere five months after our honeymoon, Anthony and I made the decision to move away from Seattle, the place we'd both called home for a decade. As a federal grant manager, his gigs were all term-limited to the length of the grant, usually two to three years, and his grant ran out. Not finding opportunity in Seattle, he cast a wider net, and a position presented itself in a little town called Chehalis.

It was both difficult and easy to leave Seattle. Difficult because of family - my stepson, then in high school - and friends it would be tough to be further away from. But Chehalis is only an hour and a half from Seattle, so we reasoned that these days, that's basically commuting distance, with regular train service between to ease the matter. Still, the decision was not taken lightly. Here we are with Zander at our wedding. 

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And here are my sisters in crime, with whom I shared many a drink and a laugh during years of losing loved ones, divorce, career drama, dating at middle age, and just living, the four of us exploring together all that Seattle has to offer. It hurt to leave them.

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So, in what way was leaving Seattle an easy decision? Anthony and I had been priced out of the housing market, and as Gen Xers, we'd consistently got the short end of the stick, surviving long periods of war, recession, and the dissolution of that nice little thing called pensions, with Social Security not likely to be there for us when we need it. Anthony and I were in our forties and staring into a future that showed little promise of that thing our parents' generation enjoyed: retirement. 

We'd also seen the city change dramatically in our decade as Seattleites, and not usually for the better. I describe this in two farewell pieces I penned for the blog - Bye-bye, Bartell... And Seattle, Too and Seattle, A Love Letter.

We were able to buy a house in Chehalis, a burg of only 7,000 people located at the midpoint between Seattle and Portland.

My working life changed tremendously with the move. I continued to write and edit for the game company where I'd managed a team for the previous four years, but I stepped down from the role as supervisor, passing the baton to my number one hire. I worked 3/4-time and remotely, with once-a-quarter visits to the office. I now also had the responsibility of novelist, as Cat in the Flock had proved just successful enough to push me to write followup books in the series. 

Here's my work crew at our wedding.

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When Anthony first introduced me to Chehalis, I had been very skeptical. It's in a county with a relatively high unemployment rate, and its landscape has been ravaged by meth. But the rural vibe had a certain appeal, and what sold us on the plan was the cute Craftsman house we were able to purchase for a mere fraction of the price it would have fetched in Seattle. We found there a friendly, supportive community, and for awhile, it looked like we might stay.

But then that light bulb of an idea blinked off, in a hurry.

I'd made a solid decision to exit the game company after five years, bolstered by the success of my first novel. Unfortunately, a year after Cat in the Flock released, the self-publishing bubble burst. So I turned to the freelance writing that had provided an income in the past, both journalism and game writing. However, another problem surfaced: Anthony's grant would come to an end, and contrary to what his boss had promised him during the hiring process, she was not going to retire and vacate her (permanent) position. Also, the college president who'd foreshadowed great things for Anthony was, um, fired. With few job prospects in our vicinity, we were in danger of soon finding ourselves without health care and other benefits. Efforts to turn up other opportunities failed.

We'd also, truth told, had a rough time of it in Chehalis. Zander fell into some wrong crowds back in Seattle, and we had to resort to some pretty drastic interventions in order to get him back on track. Of course we blamed ourselves even if it wasn't our fault, and it didn't help that the kid's mother tried to cast blame on us as well. We moved him to Chehalis with us, and he finished his last year of high school there. We also suffered a series of major health problems, and unfortunately discovered that Chehalis' medical offerings left a lot to be desired as we found ourselves taking frequent (and expensive) jaunts to Seattle to see specialists we wouldn't have to report for malpractice.

I know, this all sounds a bit too grave. Here, look at this fun piñata pic from our wedding!

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Fortunately, our extensive efforts to circle the wagons around Zander paid off. We're the proud parents of a hard-working, upstanding, promising young man. He's enrolled full-time at University of Washington and works as an assistant manager in a grocery store. During this very trying spring, he donned a mask and continued on as an essential worker. He also turned out to support his community during the protests that held Seattle for much of the spring. He visited us for two weeks this summer, one as our official intern at Brunette Games.

But back to Chehalis. With the books not earning an income and the full-time job prospects for us both slim, Anthony and I again began to plot our next move. We scoured the scene for opportunities in Walla Walla, his home town, and St. Louis, mine. We got a hit in St. Louis.

After I spotted the university's call for applicants to teach game design in late spring 2017, things moved rather quickly. They offered me a position as visiting professor, and I'd need to start work in St. Louis in July. That left us no time to sell our house, get Zander off to college, pack up, and make the cross-country journey. It proceeded about as awkwardly as you can imagine, with Anthony and I living apart for three months, me trying to string together affordable Airbnbs and having some truly awful experiences (drug deals, broken appliances, and dirty dishes, oh, my!), and the two of us having to put our Chehalis home onto the rental market when it wouldn't sell.

Feeling blue again? Check out this place setting from our wedding.

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I wish I could tell you that St. Louis and this teacher gig were the answer to our prayers, but they were... most decidedly... not.

Fortunately for me, two of the games I'd consulted on and written as a freelancer gained attention, one for its experimental innovation and the other for its commercial success. Suddenly, I had opportunity out the ying-yang, just at a time when I realized the university had overstated its promise of release time for such professional pursuits. Soon I'd have not just a full-time job's worth of game writing on my hands, but enough to hire additional help. Still, I loved teaching, and I had really wanted the university role to work.

But in early 2018, I withdrew my candidacy for tenure. It had become clear that the department's toxic environment would only bring me intense frustration in the years ahead. I also had no respect for the other visiting professor in our rather new, rather small program, and I did not relish the idea of trying to work with him for the long haul.

I ended up dodging a bullet. By spring, my office was barraged with complaints against that other professor, one of them a very serious allegation of sexual harassment. I don't want to spend more ink on this than I already have, so let's just say that I was monumentally relieved that I'd already made the decision to leave. That individual is no longer working at the university, thank goodness, but the fallout will be long-lasting.

Now I know you really need to see this pic of what a little girl looks like when she sees the bride for the first time.

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So in 2018 I hired some of my former game design students, as well as the Seattle-based editor of my books, and we were off to the races as Brunette Games, official. We've been thick with clients and games ever since. By 2019, I was already overwhelmed with the demands of running a business as well as a team, so I cast a sideways glance at Anthony, who worked for a micromanaging boss he didn't respect. He'd landed a position at a local non-profit, but obviously, it was the wrong fit. 

He had a decade of experience in grant management, preceded by a decade in the game industry as a brand manager. We'd already taught together when, in my final semester at the university, we linked my course in narrative design with his course in tabletop games, and it was a huge success. We had a solid marriage built on trust and communication. Surely we could work together, too.

It's been a year and a half since Anthony joined Brunette Games, and we have no regrets. I'm not going to sugarcoat how excruciatingly stressful it can be to go into business for yourselves, but somehow, it's easier knowing you have each other's backs. 

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I call this our "six-pack" marriage for the six years packed full of major life events, and not any other reason. We certainly aren't sporting six packs here, and since we've both lost the ability to drink, we can't count on a six pack to ease our pains. 

But we can crack a joke like anyone's business. We never forget to laugh, or to reach for each other's hand.

P.S. Who took our lovely wedding photos? Alexandra Knight Photography.

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