“Stretching the Summer Harvest”

Published by Forever Young.

Summertime brings plenty to look forward to for Western New Yorkers—dips in Lake Erie, strolls through Delaware Park, visits to Canalside, and of course, trips to every nearby farmers’ market and U-Pick farm. But because the season never lasts long, sadness sometimes creeps in with all that fresh-picked sweetness. This year, save at least the tastes of summer by drying, freezing, and canning to bring a bit of summer into the colder months. 

Dry it

Drying fruits, herbs, and vegetables is a clever way to keep your favorite flavors shelf-stable for several weeks. Dried fruit can be eaten as a healthy snack, added to trail mixes and cereal, and baked into desserts. Dried tomatoes and peppers are tasty in soups and stews and can be rehydrated for other dishes. And who doesn’t want to stock their own spice cabinet?

It’s not necessary to buy expensive food dehydrators to dry your summer produce; all you need is an oven. Cut tomatoes and large peppers into quarters or eighths; leave smaller vegetables whole. Bake them on parchment paper in an oven set to 200 degrees for four to five hours, turning them every so often and checking for dryness. 

Herbs can be dried the same way or hung upside down. For the second method, pick or cut a handful of rosemary or thyme (or sage, parsley, or oregano), wrap the stems together with wire or twine, and hang the bouquet upside down in a cool, dry place. Keep out of direct sunlight. When the herbs are crispy to the touch, they’re ready. Take them down, crush or break them up, and store them in an air-tight container. 

Tip: Reuse glass baby food jars for an eco-friendly option.

Freeze it

Freezing is wonderful for food preservation, if you’ve got the space. There’s no greater comfort than pulling out a container of homemade spaghetti sauce in the middle of December, heating it up, and reliving the magic of summer tomatoes. Freezing is also a safe way to save soups, sauces, and stews that contain meat. 

No other food preservation method is easier. Put your fruit, jam, or sauce into a food-safe and air-tight container (no glass!), label it, and pop it in the freezer. To avoid freezer burn, make sure the food is wrapped or sealed tightly, without a lot of extra “air space” in the container. 

Tip: Freeze multiple small quantities instead of a few huge containers. They are easier to use and share, and you’ll cut down on thawing time. 

Can it

Save summer in a bottle by canning your own salsa, preserves, or pickles. Local produce (even from your own backyard) always tastes better than store-bought versions, and canned goods make perfect gifts, appropriate for any occasion. For an added personal touch, design your own labels. (“Peggy’s Pickles” will be a hit at Christmas, and “Sweet and Sassy Strawberry Jam” will be everyone’s favorite housewarming gift, guaranteed.)

When canning, it’s important to follow preparation guidelines, including temperatures, measurements, and cook times. Cutting corners can be dangerous; follow trusted recipes and do your research.

Tip: If you’re new to canning, cook one batch at a time, then check for proper seals, taste, set, and texture. That way, you can make any corrections necessary for a perfect second batch. 

The warm weather won’t last long, but with a little planning, the harvest can. This winter, when your friends and family members are pining for fresh raspberries or vine-ripe tomatoes, pop open a jar of summer and pass it around. 

“‘Bee’ Kind to Pollinators!”

Published by Forever Young.

Every gardener, from the casual petunia planter to the competitive crookneck squash grower, has gotten the memo: make your gardens pollinator friendly, because if we lose our bees, we lose our flowers and our food! But how does that awareness translate to actionable steps we can all take in our own backyards?

Jeff Tome, senior nature educator, marketing director, and “bee guy” at the Audubon Community Nature Center, spends a great deal of time and energy studying these tiny heroes and how to best preserve their numbers.

“What’s fascinating to me is that a lot of times, when people think about bees, they just think about honeybees,” Tome says. “But New York has over 350 different species of bees—there is just an incredible range and diversity of bees in this state.”

Regardless of species, though, all those buzzin’ cousins share the same short list of must-haves. They need steady food sources, constant access to water, places to nest and ride out the cold months, and to not be poisoned with fertilizers and pesticides.

Ring the dinner bell

As for what to plant in your garden, think variety and longevity.

“At the Audubon, we have pollinator gardens and butterfly gardens and native plant gardens,” explains Tome. “When we create them, we are focused on blossoms that last through all three seasons. Bees like a range of flowers, too.”

According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (xerces.org), gardeners in the Great Lakes region can do the most good by providing habitats for bees that are rich in wildflowers. Nectar is bees’ primary food source, and female bees bring pollen home to feed their little ones. Native wildflowers have the advantage of being low maintenance, as well—they require less water than non-native blooms and don’t need to be pampered. Plants like wild lupine, dotted mint, purple coneflower, and calico aster will keep the pollen party going all summer long.

But, notes Tome, don’t forget to think big.

“When you are planting a garden with bees in mind, think about trees and shrubs,” he says. “They like maples and redbuds. Flowering trees are one of bees’ main food sources in early spring.”

Broadening your definition of beauty might also be helpful. Think of it this way: every time you pull out a dandelion, a bee loses its dinner.

“Let the dandelions and violets grow!” says Tome. “Bees often depend on the nectar from all those colorful yard ‘weeds’ to survive.”

Less work for you and more food for them? It’s a win-win!

Provide fresh (shallow) water

This one is easy. All living things need water, but keep it shallow for bees, to reduce their chances of drowning or becoming exhausted by trying to swim. This can be as simple as filling a bowl with pebbles and water or setting out saucers in a few places throughout your garden. Make sure to check them often and refill as needed—bees won’t be the only thirsty visitors this growing season.

Give them shelter

Not all bees live in hives they build themselves. Some species live in ground nests or in hollow crevices in trees or dead logs. Some bees live in groups, while others prefer a solitary lifestyle. Also, bees may spend the winter months in different digs than they move into for the spring and summer, kind of like Western New York snowbirds!

“Bees in New York have different ways of ‘winterizing,’” says Tome. “There is no simple answer to how bees spend the winter.”

To help bees find the shelter they need, don’t do too much cleanup in the fall. If there is a dead log at the edge of your yard, leave it there. If a pile of leaves gets swept against your back fence, don’t rake it up. If you need to cut a tree down, consider leaving the stump alone to decompose naturally.

In warmer months, look for bee activity around trees and yard debris and along the ground, especially  before you mow. If you notice several bees hanging around in one spot, steer clear, and keep pets out of the area. The bees probably have a nest there and disturbing it could lead to stings.

Ditch the poisons

Harmful garden chemicals like fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are killing bees at alarming rates. Bees are exposed to these toxins directly, through sprays; and indirectly, by eating poisoned nectar and nesting on or with contaminated material. The less clean, green space bees can access, the more their numbers will shrink.

“Forget the pesticides,” says Tome. “If you want bees to have a long life, you can’t poison their flowers and you can’t poison your yard.”

Instead, expand your garden horizons with new knowledge and adjusted thinking. Skip synthetic fertilizers and research natural compost. Plant native species that you won’t need to fuss over. Learn to love the cheerfulness of dandelions. Look up organic pest deterrents and plant insect- and disease-resistant varieties of flowers and vegetables. After all, isn’t the joy of discovery why you fell in love with gardening in the first place?

Creating a bee-friendly garden isn’t as hard as you may have thought. By letting the dandelions grow and leaving the brush pile to rot, it means less work for you! To increase your positive impact, encourage your neighbors to adopt the same practices, so bees feel welcome up and down your street. As a reward, you’ll all have healthier gardens, enjoy more flowers and vegetables, and hear the best song of the summer—the contented drone of bees buzzing around your backyard!

“Wedding Quandary: Tech or Tradition?”

Published by Buffalo Spree Magazine.

When it comes to wedding planning, dress, color scheme, and menu decisions are the same as ever, but when it comes to music, invitations, and registries, brides and grooms now have techier alternatives to consider. And the choices aren’t always easy, given that both traditional and tech options have advantages.

Band or DJ?

Great music can keep a party moving, while humdrum tunes can have guests stifling yawns by 9p.m. While bands and DJs remain popular choices, creating a wedding playlist and streaming from a device is now a viable alternative. In choosing, couples should factor in budget, personal taste, and ambiance, as making the right decision means prioritizing these items.

Consider what you want and how much your budget can afford, knowing that the higher you go, the less you’ll have for other wedding needs. Borrowed & Blue’s (borrowedandblue.com) Audra Jones, in “Bands v. DJs: Which Is Right for Your Wedding?” notes that “wedding bands are, on average, significantly more expensive, typically running from $3,000 [to] $10,000.” Check local and new bands, too; their costs may be significantly less.   

“Few things can energize a crowd quite like live music,” says Jones. “There’s just something about the beat of the drum and the energy of the musicians that puts everyone in a good mood and gets feet tapping!” Live musicians are also great when you’re going for an overall wedding theme or mood. Roaring Twenties wedding? Island luau? Cinderella’s ball? No problem. Most musicians will even dress the part to add flair to the evening. And, Jones notes, even folks who don’t dance enjoy a live show.

For more varied sound, or to hear songs as recorded by your favorite artists, a DJ fits the bill. You can provide playlists, as well as specific instructions: e.g., do not play the “Chicken Dance” no matter how many times your second cousin requests it. If your venue is small, consider that a DJ’s equipment likely takes less space than a band. DJs are more affordable than bands, and can take breaks without leaving the party sans music.

Band or DJ, do your homework. Don’t sign a contract until you’ve checked out a performance or event. Pay attention to how they read a crowd; they should know when it’s time to pick up the tempo and when to pull back for a cozy slow dance. Also make sure you get along; whoever provides your music should understand the vibe you want for your special day.

Hooking up your own device and streaming music for the reception is by far the most affordable route, but preplanning is critical. Do you need WiFi? Are the speakers at the venue adequate, or do you need to bring or rent your own? Is someone capable in charge of setting it up? Remember that a dead battery, glitchy reception, or a forgotten cable could mean no music at all. Do a test run—do two—and have backup to avoid mishaps.

Paper invitations or e-vites?

When considering paper vs. electronic invitations, it again comes down to budget and preference. E-vites are much less expensive—often pennies on the dollar, in comparison—and there’s no additional cost for postage. When you hit “send,” off they go, and replies come back just as fast. Some wedding apps will even keep track of responses for you, which makes planning a snap.

But, as Eliana Dockterman highlights in Time’s (time.com) “With This App, I Thee Wed,” “Going high-tech sometimes means sacrificing formality. Even the most beautiful online invitations can send a more casual message.” She then quotes Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert who says invitations set the tone for the wedding: “If you get a beautifully engraved invitation in the mail where someone took the time and money to hire a calligrapher, that notes the wedding is much more formal. If you send out an e-vite, that sends another message. Maybe the wedding is less formal.”

If you or a friend have some skills, a cost-saving in-between option is designing your own invitations, and printing them at home. Also consider how you want to save mementos of your big day. E-vites can be added to a wedding website or online album, whereas paper invitations can be framed or pasted into a wedding scrapbook.

“Stuff” or money?

The old gift registry debate—is it impersonal to provide a preselected list of “gifts”?—has been replaced by a new one: does the couple ask for gifts from the registry or contributions toward a honeymoon, house, or (gulp) paying down student loan debt. Registering for “wrappable” gifts can be a lot of fun—browsing through your favorite store with a scanning gun that makes you feel like a superhero, or sitting with a laptop, clicking all the kitchen gadgets and throw pillows—but if your apartment is a studio, your cooking skills max out at pouring cereal, you can’t imagine ever needing a linen napkin (monogrammed or otherwise), and you’d really like to go to Hawaii, money might seem a lot more practical.

Linda Marx, for the New York Times, claims in “Passing on Wedding Gifts, Millennials Prefer Cash,” while it was once considered tacky to ask for money, younger generations are changing the etiquette. “When it comes to registering for gifts, a generational sea change has developed, with more and more millennial couples asking their guests to consider holding the gravy ladles and shelving the dishes in favor of gifts of a very different sort,” says Marx, who says they prefer “cash, home-repair gift cards, and lavish honeymoon experiences.”

But it’s not just twentysomethings who don’t want crystal and china. Couples who get married later in life may already have all they need—hutches and silverware drawers are full, houses are furnished, and walls are decorated. So, gifting an experience may be more appreciated. Many registry websites have buttons guests can click to fund honeymoon trips: e.g., they can buy the newlyweds a whale watch tour, a salsa dancing lesson, or tickets to a show.

As Marx says, “The wedding-gift concept has morphed into doing what makes the couple happy.” That may mean a new blender, or not. Whatever you choose, remember your manners. Give guests different price options, so those with less disposable income can still contribute. And, if Aunt Gert gives you a slow cooker you didn’t ask for, tell her it’s just what you needed, and try making some chili cheese dip in it. You’ll never be sorry you did.

“Sheridan structure still retains century-old beauty”

Published in the Dunkirk Observer and on observertoday.com.

SHERIDAN — Members of “The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry” may not have met at the old Victorian structure on Route 20 in Sheridan for over a decade, but that doesn’t change the fact that locals will only ever call it one thing: The Sheridan Grange building.

ONCE UPON A TIME

The huge meeting hall has stood on the same site since before 1900. According to Virginia Becker, secretary for the Sheridan Historical Society, it was purchased by the Grange organization in 1913, but existed long before that, with records showing a rental request from 1894.

Becker said the architecture contains elements of Victorian styling, especially when looking at its decorative features.

“It’s basically a Victorian-style barn,” said the building’s current owner, Joel Hamlet, owner of Hamlet Farms.

“It was never a home,” Becker put in. “It was likely built after the Civil War.”

Becker said it’s likely that “The Good Templars,” a service organization that formed after the Civil War, met there in the 1800s. A woman named Harriette “Hattie” Tooke owned it for some time, too.

“She owned the Grange building and the surrounding woods,” Becker said.

“It was called ‘Tooke’s Hall’ for a while,” said Hamlet, though he wasn’t sure if that was official or a nickname.

‘HOME, HOME ON THE GRANGE’

The Sheridan chapter of the Grange organization, No. 235, met first on Sept. 10, 1874, according to the Fall 2003 edition of the “Now and Then” newsletter, written by Becker and Traci Langworthy. The chapter was the seventh in the county to form.

“The idea for the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry originated at the end of the Civil War with the work of Oliver H. Kelley, a clerk in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While traveling through the defeated South to gather information about farms and meet some of their owners, Kelley envisioned the formation of a national organization of farmers, ‘united by the strong and faithful tie of agriculture,’” Becker and Langworthy wrote. “After he returned to Washington to set up the framework, however, Kelley was unable to inspire the formation of any local chapters until he came to Fredonia in April of 1868.”

That’s right: Fredonia had the first Grange chapter in the country!

The Grange organization claimed many “firsts,” one of them being that women were allowed to join and hold offices — it wasn’t your typical “old boys’ club.”

The Grange served many purposes. Its members often represented a united voice when it came to politics and agricultural policies, with the Sheridan chapter members signing a petition in March of 1880 “in regard to railroad discriminations.” They also shared information about new developments and technologies for farming amongst themselves; it wasn’t a cutthroat competition. Grange members helped one another in hopes that everyone would be successful.

Citing information from Editor John P. Downs’s 1921 book “History of Chautauqua County New York and its people” and Sheridan Grange records, “Now and Then” says “In 1913, the members’ purchase of what is now known as the Grange Hall gave a home on Main Road to new generations of Grange members.”

COMMUNITY SPACE

“It was always a gathering space,” Becker said of the Grange building. “Even before the Grange owned it. I believe the Tookes used to rent it out.”

Becker, who grew up in her family home next door to the Grange, said she has many fond memories of folks coming and going for all sorts of reasons.

“Elections were held there,” she said. “They may have had town offices there, too. But, there were town parties there, and the county nurse would even come in and do vaccinations there.”

Becker remembers her family telling her how once, the building caught fire.

“That had to be sometime around the late 1940s,” she said. “The back of the building caught fire. I remember (being told that my mother) got the children together and told (them) to pick one toy each, something special to (them) that (they) would want to save, (in case they had to leave the house).”

Without modern fire-fighting equipment, fires back then were more likely to spread to neighboring structures. Becker’s mother wanted to keep her kids safe, and she was ready to take them out of the house if necessary.

“They were able to save the building,” Becker said of the Grange. “They caught it in time to put it back, and then they rebuilt that section.”

Becker and Hamlet were kind enough to open the old hall to the OBSERVER, and Becker showed this reporter blackened boards in back room upstairs.

“You can see where the fire was,” she said. “I don’t know how much of this burned, but there are the black marks.”

MOVING OUT

Sadly, membership at the Grange dwindled throughout the 1990s. By the early 2000s, there were only a handful of local Grangers left — so they made the difficult decision to sell their building and join up with the Fredonia Grange.

“In November of 2002, members of the Sheridan chapter of the Patrons of Husbandry chose to combine with Fredonia Grange No. 1,” Becker and Langworthy wrote in “Now and Then.”

“There were only about a dozen (Sheridan members) at that point,” said Becker. “There are just (fewer) farmers than there used to be in the area.”

Usually, when a Grange chapter dissolves, it is required that the organization’s records be transferred to the New York State Grange. However, Becker and her colleagues in the historical society and the town of Sheridan were able to send up a plea to keep those records right at home.

“State officials granted the request, with the stipulation that the record books and charter would be returned to the state Grange if or when the historical society no longer desired them,” Becker and Langworthy wrote.

Becker said the Sheridan Grange members were also very generous themselves; they gave the historical society $500 to help preserve items of the collection, including many “treasures from the Grange.”

Those treasures include old photographs and the sign that used to hang above the group’s annual display at the Chautauqua County Fair in Dunkirk.

With the money donated, Becker said, an antiques display case was purchased, as well as materials to help preserve the other documents. To view these and more, contact Becker through the town hall.

The Grange building has changed hands a couple of times since the organization moved out. Most recently, Hamlet, its current owner, offered antiques for sale there. (Who could think of a better display space for antiques than an old community events hall?) All the wood floors are original, along with the huge decorative window frames and the stately staircase. There is even an old heating stove upstairs, and an ancient piano hidden away in a storage space. A painting hanging in the upstairs meeting room depicts an idyllic farm scene, though Becker said she doesn’t recognize the topography. It is unsigned, so its provenance can’t be traced.

In short, the beautiful building sits waiting for its next incarnation. And, with its rich history of community gatherings and gorgeous architectural bones, there is sure to be life in the old girl, yet.

“The Wide World of Buffalo Weddings”

Published by Buffalo Spree Magazine.

One hundred years ago, Buffalo was an enticing new home to many immigrants, and the Queen City became—and still is—a beautiful tapestry of cultural diversity. These rich cultures are often on display in the traditional wedding festivities that take place in myriad venues from historic churches, mosques, and temples to social halls, family homes, and gorgeous green spaces. 

As The Emily Post Institute says in “Religious wedding traditions around the world,” “That so many contemporary brides and grooms turn to these traditions is proof of their lasting power and significance—and attests to the desire of modern couples to invest their ceremonies with meaning and personal and historical context. It’s a way not only to personalize their ceremony, but to honor their heritage” 

German “Hochzeits” (weddings)

According to germanculture.com.ua, lively German marital traditions include honking horns and breaking glass. The “Junggesellenabschied”—which sounds a lot like a cross-cultural bachelor party—is when “a few days before the wedding, the groom and his male friends go to a pub or sometimes other places to drink and have fun.” This may happen separately or in conjunction with something like a bachelorette party, with a twist. 

“In some areas, (mostly in small villages), friends kidnap the bride, and the groom has to find her,” the website reads. “Normally, he has to search in a lot of pubs and invite all the people in (the pubs along).” And if he doesn’t invite those new friends? He gets stuck with the bill. Concedes the website, “Sometimes this ritual ends badly.” 

Another pre-wedding tradition is the “Polterabend,” an “informal party the evening before the wedding, where plates and dishes (porcelain, not glass) are smashed.” Because “Scherben bringen Glück”; shards bring luck. Therefore, the bride and groom must sweep up every little piece, so as not to leave any good fortune lying on the floor. 

On the wedding day, flowers are carried or worn by the wedding party, and also placed in the church. A large bouquet is also affixed to the hood of the wedding car, and a long car procession forms behind the new couple’s vehicle when they leave the church. The wedding guests all honk their horns at oncoming traffic, and folks honk back to wish the couple good luck. Think happy traffic jam, with everyone smiling and waving.

Among other traditions, one has the bride tie white ribbons into her bouquet, then give them to guests as they leave the church. The guests tie them onto their cars—it used to be on their antennas; on newer cars, maybe it’s rearview mirrors?—to mark them as part of the wedding procession. Another custom is for the bride’s family to save their pennies to buy her wedding shoes. 

Celtic weddings

Celtic weddings often have a strong religious element, but there are also secular traditions couples enjoy. These include following the classic wedding calendar, “handfasting,” and wearing a special style of wedding band. 

According to ireland-information.com, traditional beliefs about when one should get married are summed up in this old wedding song 

“Marry when the year is new, always loving, kind, and true. / When February birds do mate, you may wed, nor dread your fate. / If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you’ll know. / Marry in April when you can, joy for maiden and for man. / Marry in the month of May, you will surely rue the day. / Marry when June roses blow, over land and sea you’ll go. / They who in July do wed, must labor always for their bread. / Whoever wed in August be, many a change are sure to see. / Marry in September’s shine, your living will be rich and fine. / If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry. / If you wed in bleak November, only joy will come, remember. / When December’s rain fall fast, marry and true love will last.” (One wonders if discounts are available in March, May, July, and October.)

“Handfasting” is an ancient Celtic tradition that literally binds the couple’s hands, and is likely where we get the term “tying the knot.” “It is similar to an engagement, a time when both parties decide if they really wish to commit. In modern times, the tradition occurs on the actual wedding day, although in centuries past, the ceremony acted as a kind of temporary marriage,” says the website. 

During the Middle Ages, Ireland was ruled by “Brehon Law,” and handfasting was a “proper form of marriage.” Later, when the act of marriage became more formal, handfasting transitioned to a symbolic ceremony. 

Claddagh rings—depicting two hands holding a heart topped by a crown, and meant to represent the friendship, love, and loyalty that make a happy union—are often recognized even by those not familiar with Celtic traditions. The crown points outward prior to the wedding and is reversed after the wedding, indicating that the wearer is taken. Says the website, “the Claddagh ring is one of the most widespread symbols of Ireland and is very much associated with marriage and romance.”

Other Celtic wedding traditions include the bride walking down the aisle with a lucky horseshoe, which her new spouse will affix above the door of their new home; serving traditional drinks like mead or “poteen” (potato whiskey); and of course, Irish or Scottish dancers at the reception.

Muslim weddings

According to The Emily Post Institute, “The Islamic faith is the second largest religion, and while it is not specific to the Arab culture, the traditions are seen most prominently in the Middle East and in Indonesia. Traditions will differ depending on culture, Islamic sect, and observations of gender separation rules.”

Leading up to a wedding, traditions are meant to bring good fortune to the couple and to show thanks for the good fortune they’ve already found. For example, “male friends and family of both the bride and groom will meet at the mosque on the Friday after the proposal. A ceremony called a ‘Fatha’ is then held, and prayers are spoken and arms are outstretched to thank God and to bless the fathers of the bride and groom.”

Women may have henna parties, “held a few days before the ceremony with the bride and her closest female friends and family members. Henna is meant to not only adorn the bride, but to protect her as well,” shares The Emily Post Institute, which explains that various sects celebrate differently and no generalizations should be made about Muslim weddings. Some sects require men and women to stay separate during the ceremony, while others encourage men and women to mingle freely. 

Some Muslim weddings include formal contracts, with accompanying ceremonies that can last for days. “There is a contract called the ‘Meher’ that is signed and read at the ceremony stating the monetary amount that the groom will give to the bride,” says The Emily Post Institute. “There are two separate parts to the contract: an amount that is given to the bride prior to the marriage and an amount that is given throughout the bride’s life. The Meher is considered the bride’s security and can be used in any way she chooses.”

The contract is signed during the Nikah (or Nikkah) when the groom states the details of the Meher in front of at least two male witnesses, who are both required to sign the contract. The bride and groom may then share a piece of sweet fruit. 

Additional traditions include reading from the Qur’an, eating traditional foods, and congratulating the new couple with symbolic gifts.

Jewish weddings

Jewish weddings are known for being vibrant and joyous, with guests participating instead of just watching. Some Jewish wedding customs are breaking a glass, getting married under a chuppah, and dancing the Hora. 

Breaking glass can happen twice, first by the mothers of the bride and groom, to symbolize the seriousness of the relationship, then by the groom to signal the end of the ceremony (modern couples often choose to stomp on the glass together). Then everyone yells “Mazel tov” and the party starts!

“The chuppah, or bridal canopy, is one of the most symbolic and important (of the traditions that define a Jewish wedding ceremony),” says rabbibarbara.com.  “The canopy itself is a symbol of God’s love above the married couple as well as the home that they will now share as husband and wife. The traditional chuppah (dating back to the 1300s) features open sky above to acknowledge God as Creator, who infuses marriage with deep spirituality and cosmic significance, while the chuppah’s four open sides symbolize the open horizons that the couple will share in married life together. For all of these reasons, it is most meaningful for Jewish weddings to be held outdoors with blue sky above, and below, a surrounding panorama of natural creation.”

Dancing the Hora is one of the most iconic parts of many Jewish weddings. “For me, one of the most fun customs is dancing the Hora,” says recent bride Sarah Einstein. “It’s a simple dance and easy to teach to anyone at the wedding who doesn’t already know it. It’s also joyful, and there is something lovely about having almost everyone dancing together.”

During the Hora, the wedding party and guests lift the bride and groom, in chairs, and everyone dances. The couple stays connected by holding a handkerchief together, symbolizing their bond. The tricks to safety here are strong chair-lifters and sturdy furniture! 

Jewish weddings might also include the recitation of seven blessings, the drinking of ceremonial wine, and the reading of the Ketubah, which outlines what the groom’s responsibilities are to his new partner. 

Latin American weddings

Again, The Emily Post Institute warns, we can’t assume anything about Latin American weddings (or any wedding really), because practices differ by country, region, and family. “A Latin American wedding will differ greatly depending on which Spanish-speaking country the traditions are based in, but in general the day is colorful and very festive,” the article says. “Depending on the couple’s religious views, weddings (may) have a heavy Catholic influence.”

In one tradition, a lazo, often a rosary or silk cord, is symbolically draped around the necks of the bride and groom, and “the couple will wear it for the remainder of the ceremony which affirms their unity and commitment. It is removed at the end of the ceremony.” This rosary may be a borrowed family heirloom, or something ornate that the couple keeps and displays in their home. 

Another custom, according to The Emily Post Institute, is for the groom to give his partner thirteen gold coins, las arras, that have been blessed by the priest. This represents Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. In less religious ceremonies, they can represent a groom’s promise to provide for his wife and future children. Often, these coins are saved by the bride and kept in a special place. 

In many Mexican weddings, mariachis play a very special role. Mariachi bands serenade the couple, then play lively music during the reception to get everyone dancing. 

In Argentinian weddings, a fun custom replaces the bouquet toss, according to “Eight unique Latin American wedding traditions” (latina.com). The single women crowd around the large, tiered wedding cake, from which dangles many ribbons. Each lady pulls a ribbon, and the one with a ring tied to her ribbon will be the next to get married.

The article also mentions the “White Bell” in Guatemalan weddings. Placed at the entrance of the church, “The bell is filled with rice, flour, and other grains, which symbolize abundance and prosperity. When the couple enters the church, the mother (of the bride or groom) breaks the bell as a sign of good wishes for the couple.”

The Emily Post Institute also notes the “Money Dance,” which is popular at Latin American weddings, as well as in other cultures. Sometimes called the dollar dance in the United States, this is when guests pay money to dance with the bride or groom. Like wedding or bridal shower gifts, this money helps the couple set up their new life. 

Buddhist weddings

Buddhist weddings vary, since “the wedding has long been believed to be a secular affair in the eyes of many Buddhist communities,” according to The Emily Post Institute. Without religious ceremony, couples were free to design their own events. Now, though, “(the wedding) has been blessed by the monks and allows couples to hold a small affair, (but each) ceremony will differ depending on the couple’s focus.” 

This focus could be on Buddha, Dharma, nature, God, or creation itself. “The ceremony is not focused on religion (itself),” continues the article, “but rather on the couple’s promise to each other to live a harmonious and spiritual life.”

Before the ceremony, the engaged couple may visit a Buddhist monk “to make sure their horoscopes are aligned and show that they are a compatible couple.” A traditional betrothal ceremony, the “Chessian,” may be held to celebrate the coming wedding event. 

A Buddhist wedding ceremony might include meditation and moments of silence to create inner peace for the couple and their guests; a shrine to Buddha surrounded by offerings of candles and flowers; and poems or songs recited or performed by the bride and groom to show their love for one another. These may be old favorites or something composed by the bride and groom, similar to how couples write their own vows. 

Also, mentions The Emily Post Institute, “Buddhist wedding vows are (often) repeated out of the “Sigalovada Sutta,” an important text from Buddhist scripture, in which Buddha discusses ethics and important practices, also considered a Buddhist code of discipline or ethics.

Hindu weddings

The Emily Post Institute says that “The Indian culture celebrates marriage as a sacrament or a ‘sanskara,’ a ritual (that) enables two individuals to start their journey together, as one. The Hindu wedding emphasizes three essential values: happiness, harmony and growth.”

A “Mangi” is an engagement party where the couple is blessed and given gifts. A “Mehndi,” held the day before the wedding, has the bride’s friends covering her in henna designs.

The Emily Post Institute goes on to say that Hindu ceremonies are typically held on a day in “the bright half” of the northern course of the sun, and that a wedding can last multiple days. The ceremony often takes place outside “under a canopy called a ‘mandap,’ with a sacred fire.”

The ceremony itself has multiple elements, and includes extended family. One of these is the arrival of the “Vara Yatra,” when the groom and his family show up with singing and dancing, and are greeted by the bride and her family. Another element of the ceremony may be the “Hastamilap;” like handfasting, it is when the couple’s hands are tied together, here with cotton thread. “The multiple layers make it strong, symbolizing a strong marriage and an unbreakable bond,” says The Emily Post Institute

According to culturalindia.net, the elaborate customs do not stop with the ceremony. Post-wedding, “in the ‘Vidaai ceremony,’ the family of the bride gives her a sobbing farewell. Before leaving, the bride throws back three handfuls of rice and coins over her shoulders, toward her parental home,” says the website. “This is done to ensure wealth and prosperity remain in her home forever. On the arrival at the groom’s house, the new couple is welcomed by the groom’s mother, with a traditional aarti” (the lighting of a special lamp or candle). After that, there may be games and a lavish reception. 

Weddings vary because of cultural and religious backgrounds, but also because every couple is unique. However they mark the day, the goal is always to celebrate with friends and family. Whatever the customs at the next wedding you attend, join in and raise a toast, say a prayer, offer a blessing, or wish good luck for the happy couple.

“Show love. Shop local.”

Published by Buffalo Spree Magazine.

Shopping local this holiday season is about so much more than great prices and personalized service. Buying from area vendors and manufacturers boosts our hometown economy during the most important retail months and keeps it strong all throughout the year. 

When viewing any bustling Buffalo marketplace or friend-filled tavern, it may be hard to believe that just a few miles away, hulking machinery and abandoned factories are testament to the fact that the Queen City has seen better days. 

But Buffalo is on the rise! 

The “Buffalo Billion,” the rebirth of Canalside, and the ever-growing downtown medical campus are just a few large-scale projects that are breathing life back into Western New York, and hundreds of tiny inhalations and exhalations are happening, too, with small businesses and local vendors. When you buy gifts or party supplies from small businesses, you’re helping Buffalo boot ’n’ rally. 

According to Sustainable Connections (sustainableconnections.org), an award-winning not-for-profit organization that promotes local shopping for its financial, community, and environmental benefits, supporting local merchants encourages local prosperity and gives young people a reason to settle and raise families in their hometowns: 

A growing body of economic research shows that in an increasingly homogenized world, entrepreneurs and skilled workers are more likely to invest and settle in communities that preserve their one-of-a-kind businesses and distinctive character.” 

Quite possibly, Buffalo, with its surrounding communities, is one of the most unique cities in the state, perhaps even the North. The Queen City’s rich history has left an imprint on downtown building facades, lakeside topography, and even its people—who remain fiercely loyal to their hometown traditions and especially their hometown sports franchises. Isn’t that a heritage worth preserving?

Say so! Bay-6, Buffalo Clothing Co., located in the Southgate Plaza on Union Road in West Seneca, is a boutique carrying plenty of apparel to show your Buffalove. The store is a one-stop-shop for fan gear and more, making it easy to check names off your holiday gift list. 

“We get a lot of people coming in from out of town who lived here before and moved away,” says owner Suzanne Miller. “Other customers are looking to send Buffalo gear to out-of-town relatives; they’re people looking for hometown gifts and who want to celebrate our city. “We get people who say, ‘I have to stop in to get my Buffalo gear.’ These are displaced Western New Yorkers, and Buffalo will always be their home.” 

For many of these homesick transplants, Bay-6 is a scheduled stop when they come home for winter holidays. “We have dog apparel, too, so the whole family can show their love for Buffalo!” Miller adds.

Bay-6 also supports other small businesses by stocking books by local authors and clothing items by Buffalo designers. They even have infants’ and kids’ sizes, so parents can start the initiation into Buffalo fandom early. Get all the updates on newly stocked items, including holiday ornaments, by finding Bay-6 on Facebook.

Going to area craft shows, vendor festivals, and farmers’ markets is an excellent way to support the local economy, and ensures that you’re purchasing fresh, high-quality products. Because there is no middle man or expensive shipping involved, prices are great, too.

The Buffalo Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at the Central Wharf, Canalside, got started in 2012. Its mission, according to its website, is “to provide an affordable venue for artists to display their work and bring the community together to experience local art.” Every Saturday, dozens of artists and artisans set up booths and sell handmade jewelry, woodcarvings, soaps, glasswork, stationery, candles, children’s toys, pottery, and more. 

The SAM shopping experience is unique, too, in that it is the only consistent art market in Western New York. “All of the artisans are local and they do the selling themselves, which provides an opportunity for the buyers to meet the makers of the work they love,” continues Leatherbarrow. “Selling directly to the customers gives the artisans immediate feedback and affects what they make before the next market—this creates a symbiotic relationship where the art becomes a reflection of the community that supports it.” 

As the Sustainable Connections website explains, meeting specific local needs and wants is a common benefit of small marketplace vending: “A multitude of small businesses, each selecting products based not on a national sales plan but on their own interests and the needs of their local customers, guarantees a much broader range of product choices.”

Leatherbarrow also points out that spending money at SAM keeps dollars in the neighborhood. 

“Shopping local gives a much-needed boost to our local economy,” she notes. “SAM is a market of artists, but these are all small businesses that need and deserve support. These are your neighbors! When you shop local, the funds go right back into the local economy, which has proven to improve life in communities that hold these types of events.” 

For a complete schedule of market dates, driving directions, and a list of vendors and available items, go to buffalosaturdayartmarket.com or visit the Buffalo Saturday Artisan Market facebook page

Plenty of other unique shopping experiences are coming to Buffalo neighborhoods. “Green Friday” (as an alternative to Black Friday) is being held November 27 in the village of Hamburg, with free trolley rides (from noon to 6 p.m.) taking shoppers around to participating local stores and restaurants for great deals and one-of-a-kind gifts! Shoppers aboard the trolley will also get special coupons and a chance to win prizes with the “Passport to Prizes” game. For event details, go to facebook.com/HamburgGreenFriday.

Also happening, on November 27, is the fifth annual Black Friday Boutique Crawl on Elmwood Avenue, organized by the Elmwood Village Association (ELA). More than thirty businesses will participate in this holiday shopping season kick-off, which began as a way to celebrate the neighborhood and its shopkeepers.

“The event was started to provide a shopping experience away from the mall madness that allows shoppers to buy local, and support independent Buffalo businesses,” says Jennifer White, community engagement manager for the ELA. Local spending keeps three times more money in Buffalo, and locals create the most new jobs.” 

Sign up for the ELA e-newsletter at elmwoodvillage.org to keep up with all the neighborhood news! 

On December 4–5, Hertel Avenue businesses will open their doors and hang up wreaths for the twentieth annual “Hertel Holidays,” presented by the Hertel Business Association. This crowd-pleasing event brings hundreds of Buffalo shoppers to the Hertel neighborhood every year, with restaurants and shops offering the seasonal deals that leave shoppers jolly, joyful, and laden with packages. The event runs from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Santa himself will be there, perhaps literally with bells on. See hertelholidays.com for the photo gallery and all the latest news. 

If it’s a day trip you’re after, head west on Route 20 to the Crossroads Market in Westfield. This “mall-ternative” destination is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through December 19 and on Black Friday. Dozens of vendors ensure something for everyone, including hard-to-find gluten-free baking and soup mixes. In December, live music will make the market extra jolly, and Santa will drop by to check on nice (and naughty) shoppers. For more information, including directions, go to thecrossroadsmarket.com.

Along with its festivals, sports teams, and reputation as one of the snowiest places in the United States, Buffalo is known for some of its landmark businesses, large and small: General Mills, Anchor Bar, Duff’s, Pearl Street Brewery, and, of course, Spot Coffee.

The Spot Coffee legacy began in 1996, and has grown to include nine cafes in and around Buffalo, with US central headquarters taking pride of place on Delaware Avenue.

Locations include Buffalo, Orchard Park, Glens Falls, Clarence, Williamsville, Saratoga Springs, and now Rochester, so this “neighborhood café” really is in (or close to) your neighborhood. Stop in and try a signature entrée, then relax with a cup of Buffalo’s best brew after a long day of cookie baking or tree trimming.

Staylocal.org, another nonprofit dedicated to strengthening communities through local entrepreneurship and neighborhood support, says that money spent at businesses like Spot Coffee have a ripple effect on the local economy: “Your dollars spent in locally owned businesses have three times the impact on your community as dollars spent at national chains. When shopping locally, you simultaneously create jobs, fund more city services through sales tax, invest in neighborhood improvement and promote community development.”

In addition to that, small businesses and neighborhood merchants are far more likely to support local fundraising efforts, donate to community improvement projects, and volunteer free time to everything from staffing soup kitchens to organizing mitten drives. 

The next time you’re planning a date, scheduling an outing with friends, or making your holiday shopping list, contemplate for a moment where you want your hard-earned money to go. You cast a vote with every dollar you spend. Why not vote for quality, for your neighbors, and for Western New York? And it’s not just about strengthening the local community and economy. Shopping local will preserve the character and restore the dignity of the Queen City, turning rust into gold—maybe tarnished, but beautiful and valuable all the same. Don’t forget to go to your local farmers’ market and neighborhood events. Visit nearby orchards and vineyards. These are relaxing ways to fit in holiday shopping, spend afternoons with friends, or have a fun and flirty first date.

Who does chicken wings better? Whose fans remain fiercely loyal no matter how many Bills games are lost or won? Whose proud townies wear three, four, five sweaters and a parka to come curl at Canalside every week this winter? Which city’s residents inhale the scent of Cheerios every morning and shovel their sidewalks every evening and think “There’s no place like home,” and mean it? 

There’s only one Buffalo.  

“MADE WITH LOVE: Give a little of yourself with these DIY gifts”

Published by Forever Young.

These DIY projects are so easy and inexpensive to make—and kids love to help. Spa certificates and store-bought sweaters will always be appreciated but if you’d like to wrap up something a little more personal this season, consider one of these fun-to-make (and receive) gifts.

Chalkboard wall art

What you’ll need:

Old silver-plated or chromium tray (check your local thrift store or an estate sale)

Painter’s tape

Chalkboard paint (find at any home improvement store)

One-inch angled paint brush

Chalk

Picture frame bracket and super glue (*or ribbon)

This one is simple to make and right on trend. Wipe the tray clean and dry then lay flat. Cover the silver edge with painter’s tape for a framed look. Coat the inside with chalkboard paint. It takes three to four coats to get good coverage. Let the surface dry completely between coats then remove tape. If the tray has a “laced” edge with cutouts*, use pretty ribbon to make a hanging loop, and add an extra bow for flair. If the tray doesn’t have cutouts, use super glue to attach a metal bracket to the back and let it dry overnight. Now add a sweet message with chalk and present it to one of your favorite people!

Wine charms

What you’ll need:

Wire wine charm rings

Small glass or plastic beads

Assorted charms

You can find these supplies at any craft store or order them online; try orientaltrading.com or joann.com. Just select a color scheme and a charm and thread the beads onto the wire ring. Stop halfway to add the charm, then finish it up with more beads in the same pattern. Choose special charms to easily personalize this gift. Give them in sets of four, six, or eight and, to show some extra love, include a bottle of great local wine! For pretty presentation, tie the charms around the wine bottle’s neck with ribbon or twine and a gift tag.

Fabric animal ornaments

What you’ll need:

Fabric (you may have some scraps from projects lying around)

Buttons

Needle and thread

Ribbon

Yarn

This whimsical gift is perfect for loved ones of any age—and it’s almost impossible to mess up. The more homemade-looking it is, the better. Choose any animal that can be represented with a few color blocks, like a bird, turtle, or fish. Cut out the animal’s base shape then cut out its wings/shell/fins using different fabrics. Sew these to the base shape with contrasting-colored thread— don’t worry about perfect stitches. Keep the little cloth pieces you trim off; you’ll use them later for stuffing. To make the animal really special, stitch on a year or monogram. Add button eyes. The owls I made for babies Molly and Parker have feet made from yarn loops. For the backing, lay the animal down on a contrasting piece of fabric and trace the same shape but a little larger. It’s easier to trim as you go than to realize, too late, that the back is too small. Sew the animal to the backing, leaving the top open to add your “stuffing,” which is more fabric scraps (or anything else you’ve got: cotton balls, shredded junk mail, a cut-up stray sock). Right before you close it up, tie a loop in a piece of ribbon and sew the knot inside. Now this little creature can take its place on the tree year after year!

Every time your friends or family members change the chalkboard message, get out the wine glasses for a party, or decorate the Christmas tree, they’ll remember how much you love them. Isn’t that the best gift of all?

“Write for Life”

Published by Forever Young.

Self-expression doesn’t have an age limit, and living long and well means seniors have many stories to tell. There are myriad benefits of creative writing for those over fifty and plenty of resources in Buffalo for anyone who wants to give it a try.

Robin Jordan, writing center coordinator for Just Buffalo Literary Center, stresses the profound benefits of creative writing for scribblers of all ages. “Creative writing can heal, inspire, create communities, spur essential feelings of empathy, and play an integral part in sparking political and social change. For so many, without creative writing, we are nearly voiceless,” Jordan says.

Olga Karman, JBLC board member, is one of the founders and group leaders of the Stadnitski Workshop, a weekly senior citizens writing group. She says participants have developed a sense of community there, which is so important for seniors who can become isolated due to health issues and far-flung friends and family. Stadnitski writers are also building confidence and developing agency in grappling with sometimes-painful memories.

“The emotional benefits are several and they are the reason I continue to dedicate time and effort to this project,” Karman says. “Participants are encouraged to remember and describe times, places, persons, and events that formed them. This activity helps to integrate their past with their present. In giving form to memories, they get a chance to ‘write their histories’ and thereby to control them.”

Mimi Dow, another founder and JBLC board member, says the workshop helps seniors recognize their value. “(Participants) are writing things down, and we’re paying attention,” she says. “We all write and we all share. It’s a confidence-builder.”

To see everything Just Buffalo has to offer, including the Writers’ Critique Group, Studio Poetry Series, and Literary Buffalo, visit justbuffalo.org.

Amy Christman, librarian and manager for the Kenilworth branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library System, started an adult journaling workshop in 2002, and that small community of writers—many of them seniors—remains strong.

The group meets monthly on the first Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. “The group is open to all adult writers, and the goal is that their writing leads them back to some self-knowledge. Journaling is about learning who you are, and you can do that at any age,” Christman says. For more information on Christman’s journaling group, call the Kenilworth branch at 834-7657.

Mary Jean Jakubowski, library director for the Buffalo and Erie Public Library System, recognizes the importance of creative writing for seniors, and points to the library’s author resources. “Our homepage has a plethora of materials on creative writing and getting published, both in print and online,” she says. “We have tools to enhance the writing process and contact information for adult education programs and workshops in the community.”

She adds that the Buffalo libraries have many creative writing events, like poetry slams and read aloud nights. The library also houses local author collections, so writers can bring their books in to get them put into circulation! Events are free and open to the public, and Jakubowski always welcomes new ideas for programming. For the full schedule of events or to peruse online writers’ resources, go to buffalolib.org.

Many senior authors are penning their memoirs; recording their storied lives for future generations to laugh, cry, or gasp over. Sarah Einstein, who recently published Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015), has some helpful tips for memoirists-in-the-making. “Read and study work you admire,” she says. “Study the way the author smooths out the vagaries of memory and finds larger meaning in the (remembered) events. Memoirs can be organized in all sorts of interesting and useful ways, and chronology is only one of them. Structure should follow the needs of the main narrative arc, not simply the timeline of events. Take a class or two, but mostly, read, and then write many, many drafts!”

It doesn’t take much to incorporate creative writing into your life. Start a journal, attend a poetry reading, or join a workshop group or start your own. The experience can be life-changing, eye-opening, and instrumental in building a healthier, more connected life. Pick up a pen or flex your typing fingers. Your stories are worth telling.

“A Few Days in the Dale”

Published by Buffalo Spree Magazine.

When it comes to day trips and weekend getaways, Western New Yorkers are rich with possibilities, from antiquing trails to agri-tourism festivals to the treasures of small towns. One of these not-so-hidden gems is historic Lily Dale: “City of Light” and the world’s largest Spiritualism community. Lily Dale is located in Chautauqua County, on the shores of Cassadaga Lake. And though more and more visitors “discover” Lily Dale every summer season from late June to early September, the quaint Victorian village has existed since 1879, when the community’s founders purchased the first few acres.

Lily Dale has been featured in several documentaries by both U.S. and overseas filmmakers, and in countless newspaper and magazine articles. Full-length non-fiction works on Lily Dale can be found on bookshelves across the country, their pages lined with tales of the community’s rich past and examinations of the often-debated religion of Spiritualism — a belief of which is that the living can communicate with the dead. Readers may also recognize the the village from Wendy Corsi Staub’s bestselling thrillers — she admits that Lily Dale is one of her favorite settings — and from After Life, by Ithaca writer Rhian Ellis (rhianellis.com).

Donn Smeragliuolo is the CEO and president of the board of directors for the Lily Dale Assembly. He explained why Lily Dale makes the perfect weekend destination.

“We have so much to offer, aside from being a spiritualist community. It’s beautiful here, and peaceful. For a $12 gate fee, visitors can visit the museum and library, attend workshops, and participate in the outdoor activities. One of the best things is just walking around the village and taking in the atmosphere. It’s truly like stepping back in time,” he said. “And we’re going to keep it what it is.”

History buffs will get a thrill from the turn-of-the-century architecture and the celebrities who have stayed in the hotels and spoken in the Auditorium — people like Susan B. Anthony, Reverend Anna Shaw, and Houdini. In fact, the wooden stage in the Auditorium is original, as are many of the seats. Some visitors say they can still feel the energy of those long-gone personalities and events; it’s as if they have seeped into the wood and become part of the structures.

Several of Lily Dale’s permanent residents admit it was that very energy that drew them to the community in the first place, and the reason they now call it home. One of them is Ron Nagy, the village’s historian and caretaker of the museum.

“You’ll never forget your first day (in Lily Dale),” Nagy assured. “As soon as I got here and put my feet on the ground I felt a tingling. I knew it was something special.”

Whether visitors are “believers” or not, there are plenty of reasons to spend a weekend (or longer!) in Lily Dale.

“People come here with different things in mind; some want answers, messages from Spirit about their loved ones. Some are looking for healing. Others love history, or are out just enjoying the day and the ambiance.”

On a Friday evening, guests can stroll the grounds and enjoy dinner at one of the village’s eateries, like the centrally located Monika’s Delites. Then, walk to the beach with someone special and appreciate the sunset before retiring for the night!

Accommodations in Lily Dale include two hotels, The Leolyn and the Maplewood Hotel. Rooms fill up fast; make reservations as soon as possible by calling (716) 595-8721 ext. 2005. For a more home-like feel, visitors can stay in one of the many privately run guest houses in Lily Dale. There are also camp sites available in the park-like grounds near Inspiration Stump, one of the village’s most famous locations. The nearby Dunkirk/Fredonia area offers many hotels for those who prefer more modern amenities.

Start Saturday off with breakfast at Cup-a-Joe’s Coffee Shop, then participate in the day’s many activities and workshops. Topics vary, but are often related to healing, mediumship, empowerment, and connections with the afterlife (for the full schedule, see lilydaleassembly.com). Go on a walking tour with Ron Nagy to learn the history and philosophy of Lily Dale — visitors may be surprised at the similarities between “then” and “now.” Have dinner early enough to get a seat in the Auditorium for the night’s special presenter or concert!

Sunday is perfect for visiting the Marion H. Skidmore Library and walking the Woodland Trail. Take a moment to absorb the peace and calm surrounding Inspiration Stump, then turn back for lunch at The Sunflower Cafeteria. Be sure to get a reading by one of the village’s registered mediums for an unforgettable experience; appointments are strongly recommended during peak season. Before heading home, stop by the Lily Dale Bookstore and Souvenir Shop to pick up a little remembrance of Lily Dale — where history lives and the dead are never really gone.

“Keeping us in suspense”

Published in the Dunkirk Observer and online at observertoday.com.

Editor’s note: Last week writer Rebecca Cuthbert reported about local writer Wendy Corsi Staub’s newest accomplishment, having a Wendy Markham chick-lit book adapted for the Hallmark Channel. This week Cuthbert focuses on Staub’s suspense thriller, “The Black Widow” and the author’s thoughts about writing in that genre.

“The Black Widow,” (HarperCollins) features protagonist Gaby Duran, and concludes Staub’s cyber predator trilogy. Gaby Duran has many qualities that Staub’s dedicated readers will recognize. However, as the author said, the star of this book is also somewhat of a departure from other recent characters.

“Gaby is, like my other protagonists, resourceful, strong, and intelligent,” she said, “(but she is) a little younger than my recent heroines, lives in the city as opposed to a small town or suburbia, and is single instead of married with children, though she once was a wife and mother. Her past is more painful than some – she married the love of her life, but their marriage didn’t survive the tragic loss of their infant child.”

Staub also explored Hispanic culture in writing this novel, and is grateful for the experience. “Gaby also happens to be my first Latina heroine: she’s Puerto Rican-American. I have many Hispanic family members and close friends, so I embraced the opportunity to explore the vibrant culture, and it was a crucial element within the context of this particular plot,” she said.

Staub explained that her recipe for success isn’t so much a recipe as it is knowing her fans, knowing her genre, and balancing expectations with creativity.

“Because I write within a specific genre – domestic psychological suspense – my readers have certain expectations about the kinds of characters who are going to populate the books and what’s going to happen to them,” she stated. “My protagonists tend to be ordinary people whose lives are turned upside down and jeopardized in some way. In real life, when you plug different people into an identical set of circumstances, the outcome is going to be unique every time because of who they are as individuals and how they react to conflict and interact with others. The same is true in fiction.”

Staub said this is not only true of convincing, well-rounded protagonists, but of exciting plots, as well.

“Look at it this way: if I tell you that I woke up this morning and got out of bed – well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You did the same thing. We all did. But the manner in which an event unfolds-and whether others might find it interesting-depends not just upon how it happens, but to whom it happens. Thus, when I conceive a basic plot, I think about how various personality types might behave within the confines of a specific scenario, and how that behavior might influence the plot,” she said.

Staub even gave an example of how drastically circumstances can differ for two characters, influencing the choices they make:

“A happily-married suburban stay-at-home mom with three children is going behave differently than, say, a painfully shy, recently bereaved pregnant widow working two jobs to pay the rent on an inner city apartment,” she said. “Thus, every protagonist I create is unique and comes with a unique background and circle of unique characters with whom she interacts.”

Some of the characters Gaby Duran interacts with – for better or worse – are people she meets online. Staub frequently uses current technologies to help fuel her plots and make her fictional worlds more realistic, but she admitted that these advances in communication can also hinder certain narratives, especially in the suspense genre.

“It’s impossible to write realistic contemporary fiction without addressing technology – or the lack thereof. If you need your characters to operate in a tech-free bubble, then there should be a good reason – like a power outage in a storm, for example – or you set your story in an earlier time or an alternate universe,” she said. “Just as electronic communication can enhance some plots, it can hinder others. For example, in this era of ubiquitous smartphones, it’s difficult to truly isolate a character or setting-always an effective device in a suspense plot – because most people carry or have access to electronics and even the most remote locations tend to have Internet and cell signals. So it’s not easy for a person to disappear without a trace – willingly or unwillingly – without leaving an electronic footprint via the Internet, surveillance footage, banking or credit transactions, or travel security measures. That makes it tricky to create a plot that depends on that particular scenario.”

So how does Staub navigate the tricky waters of writing thrillers in the year 2015, when AAA is always a phone call away and GPS can get any heroine un-lost in a jiffy? By exploring the dangers of the same technology that often makes life so convenient.

“My books tend to feature ordinary people made vulnerable by being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she revealed. “Technology can create vulnerability because otherwise savvy people can momentarily let their guard down on social media, sharing things that they wouldn’t dream of telling close friends or family in person. That creates the illusion of familiarity. If we trust strangers based on who they appear to be online -overlooking the fact that our perception can be easily manipulated – we become vulnerable. Even when we restrict electronic communication to people we know, we’re assuming that the person on the other end of a text or email is our friend, and not a predator who gained access to the device. I’ve used that very device to create frightening, realistic fiction.”

Staub’s readership is used to heroines who get into trouble and make mistakes – as she says, “perfection is dull!” But it’s those same flawed protagonists who rescue themselves, solve the mysteries, and come away from their battles as stronger, smarter, more capable individuals. Staub credits her upbringing as her inspiration for her heroines, along with the women who populated her formative years.

“I was a little girl in the era of Women’s Lib, and watched my mom, my aunts, and their friends – who were stay-at-home wives and mothers – go on to get college degrees and launch successful careers,” she said. “That left a strong impression on me, and I learned that we traditionally expect women to nurture others, but they must also be capable of taking care of themselves. My own strong sense of feminism and independence is often reflected in my heroines. As a result, my female ‘victims’ are rarely truly victims – they’re strong, resourceful women who try hard to save themselves when circumstances become dire.”

Staub also tries, in her way, to be kind to her villains. They’re not caricatures or stereotypes, but people who, in their pasts, suffered traumas they couldn’t rise above.

“I want my readers to come away with the sense that my novels are complex in part because just as in real life, no character is all good or all bad,” she began, and added, “my villains have usually been victimized somewhere in their past. I don’t believe in creating killers who were born pure evil – you need empathy in order to write scenes from a character’s viewpoint. So I do a lot of research into deviant psychology with each book, and my villains must possess some glimmer of redeeming characteristic in order for me to channel them.”

Whether it’s cyberworld stalkers, heroines’ blunders, dead Smartphone batteries or buried secrets, Staub’s plot twists consistently keep her readers on the edge of their seats, and in line for her newest releases. But even with so many titles to her credit, Staub isn’t slowing down. In fact, the more books she writes, the more ideas she gets for new books.

“I’ve been writing thrillers for over 20 years, so it’s like any other skill – constant practice makes you adept,” she said. “Sustaining the excitement has become second nature to me – if I’m bored when I’m writing something, then I know my reader is going to be bored reading it, so it isn’t hard to gauge the excitement level. Inspiration is everywhere. All novelists have an ingrained “What If” mechanism that’s triggered all day, every day, by what we read or watch, by things that happen to us, by events we witness or even snippets of strangers’ conversations we happen to overhear. I will never run out of inspiration – only time.”

Next week: How Staub’s local connections affect her writing.

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