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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.

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. I know, they're plastic, but 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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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

Ernest
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. 

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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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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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What's Happening Now on the Farm, Quarantine Edition

Robin's egg
At first I thought one of the neighbor kids tossed a plastic Easter egg into our yard, but it turned out to be a real robin's egg.

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a strange spring in a lot of ways. The season has seemed to last a lot longer than usual - our utility bill was cut in half over the last month because we've needed neither the furnace nor the A/C. Spring here in Missouri can sometimes go by in a blip so that you barely have any windows-open days before it's time to shut the place up and turn on the A/C. So a long spring is a welcome thing. But up until this week, it's been dry, unlike last year's mushroom-encouraging daily deluges, so we've been grateful for the rain barrels to water the direct-sow seeds going in now.

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This is as close as we get to a pond at Dragon Flower Farm, unless you count our rain garden ditches.

Of course the strangest aspects have been the fire that happened one building away and the pandemic, as if one apocalypse at a time isn't enough. We were lucky with that fire. And because Anthony and I run the game-writing business out of our home, with clients all over the world who collaborate with us remotely and mostly online anyway, not much has changed for us work-wise, despite the strict quarantines. We miss the chance to meet with our growing team in person, but otherwise, we've been lucky that the pandemic hasn't affected our livelihood too much.

What it has affected - besides the fact that we can't find toilet paper anywhere - is our social life, which is now limited to each other and the cat. We love the time to just 'be' together, for sure, and we're both homebodies, so this suits us fine. Without the opportunity to see extended family and go out with friends, we've focused on activities here at Cat in the Flock and Dragon Flower Farm. Here's a run-down.

And the Winner Is...

Anne Harrington of Seattle, Washington, won our Bringing Nature Home giveaway. Here she is posing with her signed copy of Doug Tallamy's book. Congratulations, Anne!

Winner
Love that she had this pic taken in front of those gorgeous windows, with a garden beyond.

Water, Water Every Pear

The very day the fire broke out, we'd spent the whole of the day working on the farm. Our main task was to bury a drainage pipe and dig out a larger ditch for the outflow. The pipe used to extend from the bottom of a gutter, but now it's the rain barrel overflow. 

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It's so nice to hide that pipe after a couple years of looking out the back window and seeing... a big pipe in the yard.

You might remember the 'blueberry moat' I mentioned in a previous post. We're experimenting with some permaculture methods for retaining water in the soil (water catchment). So the above drain plus the one installed between our house and the flat next door both now let out into a ditch we dug and filled with water-loving native plants (buttonbush and rose mallow). Here's the proof that water pools in the ditch during rainfall.

So... we don't know if this all works or not, but some smart permaculturists have made compelling arguments, and why not try it out? We'll let you know if we think it's successful. Have any of you opted for something like this? Let us know in the comments below.

The buttonbush and rose mallow were seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation, part of a 24-count order I put in last fall. Each seedling was only USD $1 a piece, a super steal. Many of these native plants are edible, too, such as the blackberries and wild plum. Here's the bucket full of seedlings the day they all went in.

Spring planting
All thanks to our local native plant org, Wild Ones, for sponsoring a group purchase from MDC, which only sells in bulk quantities.

So Mulch to Consider

We're closing in on a major achievement: The entire back 40 has almost been completely covered in sheet mulch. There's only this one strip in the southernmost corner still to do.

Back strip mulch
By the way, yes, that is a bat house up on the telephone pole.

We actually ran out of the mulch from St. Louis Composting but were able to get free leaves from our neighbors instead. They take longer to break down but seem to be working very well otherwise. Stay tuned...

Arch You Curious?

Building bamboo arch
Hottie.

We recently spent a day constructing something out of bamboo we got for free from a neighbor. Originally we'd planned to make this out of cattle panel, but then I realized bamboo would work just fine. Anthony will elaborate on his brilliant design-and-build project in an upcoming post.

A more permanent structure also went in recently, and that's our new pergola. It came in pieces as a kit I ordered online, and Anthony and I quickly realized we possessed neither the tools nor the talent to do this ourselves. Fortunately my brother Chris stepped up with both things and saved our butts.

Pergola
If it weren't for my brother Chris, this would still be a bunch of parts scattered across the yard.

Can't Leaf It Alone

Structures aren't the only things popping up here at the farm. A great many plants have poked up out of the ground, and some of the seedlings that looked like mere sticks all winter are leafing out. Here's the elderberry bush, an edible native plant.

Elderberry
Elderberries grow in abundance in Missouri. I've seen them near the Meramec River, with the paw paws.

We now have three native persimmons, which in my opinion constitutes a grove. One is a grafted male/female tree from Stark Bros., another is an MDC seedling, and the one pictured here is from Forest ReLeaf, another excellent source of native plants. The persimmons should pollinate each other, and in some number of years give us delicious fruit, much better than the Asian varieties in the grocery store. 

Persimmon in spring
We can't wait to eat persimmons from our own trees!

Last fall we put in a tulip tree, or tulip poplar, and at the time I didn't even realize I'd planted a tulip tree in a bed of tulips! It's growing to beat the band already. In the below photo, you can see its signature leaf shape (alternate, pinnately veined) backed by tulips in bloom. Liriodendron tulipifera is one of the tallest of the native trees, capable of reaching a height of nearly 200 feet. Ours is sited in the front yard, clear of any telephone poles or other obstacles.

Note one of the reasons I chose the tulip tree is because I watched my own father kill one when I was in high school. He was afraid it would fall on the house, which seems paranoid and unlikely in retrospect, or maybe that was just his excuse. He had the tree cut down, and then he spent the next few months destroying the stump by burning trash in it. Yeah, he was that guy. So planting a tulip tree is my way of balancing against that misguided act.

Tulip tree in the tulips
Such a pretty leaf.

Another tree addition is this beautiful shumard oak, Quercus shumardii, which could reach a height of 100 feet and will eventually give us acorns. Oaks are the superstars of the tree world, as they serve the needs of the largest number of native insects. So many pollinators and other wildlife depend on oaks for their survival that if you had to pick just one native plant to add to your yard, let it be an oak tree.

Shumard oak
Love how the leaves appear red when they emerge in the spring and turn red again in autumn before they fall.
Shumard oak2
Such a beautiful, beneficial tree, supporting a great number of wildlife and pollinators.

Moving from tall and stately to small and serene, I give you the sensitive fern frond, unfurling. This native freebie grows in our shadiest spots at Dragon Flower Farm.

Sensitive fern frond
Love. Those. Curls.

Your Herbal Hookup

I want to alert you to the exciting news that certified herbalist Amanda Jokerst has opened her online store, where you can purchase Forest & Meadow herbal products and other items mentioned in this blog post on healing with herbs. We share this news with you as independent fans of Forest & Meadow. We don't receive anything in return for this plug. That goes for all the other businesses and non-profits we're always mentioning on this blog as well. This is a labor of love, folks! Our only revenue source would be the ads you see in the margins, and those haven't yielded any funding (yet?). Feel free to click on them to see if that helps!

Herbs1
Just a small sampling of the amazing products available for the first time online.

The Last Page

I reached a personal milestone in our Dragon Flower Farm work when I recently filled the very last page in the gardening journal that I started two years ago, when the whole process began. Fittingly, there was just enough room to tape in the empty packet from a bunch of comfrey seeds, a permaculture powerhouse plant.

Last page

Thanks again for tuning in. Anthony and I hope your to-do list is short and your friends list long. Stay safe out there, my peeps!

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