The Cure for Winter and Tarnished Jewelry

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The cure for winter? Celebrations!

This week has been a head spinning week! We are working on our gallery renovation for 24 Below Gallery and Cafe, which is moving to a great entertainment district in Niagara Falls but is going into a building that was empty for several years.

Not only are we working on trying to renovate and move into a new house but also a new business! I’ve been working on the restrooms this week and took it into my own hands that I thought I could make horizontal stripes on the walls of the restroom. I’ll have to update you all on that next week, but here is a preview picture:

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New Year’s was quite a night this year! The temps were freezing and the wind was howling. Niagara Falls is lucky enough to have a Hard Rock Cafe that does a light up guitar drop down the side of a high rise building, with fireworks at midnight. But we all settled into this great bar in Niagara’s old Polish neighborhood. We had such great steaks, and such great conversation and fun we decided to stay in  the warm tavern & restaurant called The Bakery.

Warm and friendly, we had a few drinks after an excellent dinner and toasted the new year at midnight, with free party hats and noisemakers. It was a great low stress way to celebrate- and just a few blocks from my neighborhood.

Here are some great friends celebrating with us at the Bakery:

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Here we are officially in the Niagara Winter, and the afternoons seem to be mostly dark these last few days. What better way to turn that around than a good old fashioned Southern birthday?

My gay husband, M., is celebrating a “milestone birthday” today that ends in a zero. M. is from Mississippi so we were invited to a homemade southern food birthday party! The downtown home of R. and M. was glowing with beautiful candlelights and eclectic decor. Located on a beautiful street right near the Niagara Gorge with a view of the Canadian skyline from the back yard- their Victorian home is frequently the location of a great party.

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We were treated to homemade gumbo, red beans & rice, pulled pork sandwiches and cole slaw. So DELICIOUS!!! The food was absolutely amazing- prepared with time tested recipes. We gathered in several rooms and were treated to a full bar complete with spicy Bloody Mary’s. The afternoon ended with singing  to the birthday boy, and he blew out the flaming skewer, (someone forgot a candle), and we all dug into the moist delicious carrot cake and red velvet cake. (I opted for red velvet; great choice.)

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As you can see, we were treated with a whole lot of southern hospitality- and maybe a little Italian American thrown in.

While I was getting ready for the party, I decided I wanted to wear my silver hoop earrings but they had become a little dull and tarnished over the last couple of years. I did a brief google search and discovered this great trick for taking tarnish off of silver jewelry: (It really works!)

First, you assemble a bowl with your silver pieces and some pieces of aluminum foil.

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You boil a small amount of water, (enough to cover your silver) on the stove in a pot. Pour the boiling water into the bowl and add one tablespoon of baking soda. The aluminum and baking soda interact and create a bubbling fizz, which is a fun science project.

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Stir the silver jewelry around in the boiling water a little bit, allowing the reaction to loosen the tarnish. Do this for a few minutes and after the bubbling ceases and the water starts to cool down, remove the jewelry and rinse with clear water. Dry and shine up with a soft towel and it looks great!

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Now just throw on your jewelry and go party with your gay husband! If you don’t have one, you must find one! I love my gay husband. He’s been with me during the hardest day of my life and also during times of big accomplishments. He’s my filter on facebook (when I let him) and has kept me in line during work projects by letting me know I’m not alone, hence preventing me from having the big meltdown that creates my emotional volcanos.

Happy 30th M, and here’s to 100 more!

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Books & Cream Puffs

Stacks of books

Christmas has come and gone again. It comes slowly and goes so quickly. We have been  lucky with our weather in Niagara Falls so far. The weather stayed mild and almost a balmy 55 degrees for much of the Christmas week, allowing us to get outside and soak up as much sunlight as we could during the shortest days of the year. Thankfully for us- as the Winter Solstice is in our rear view mirror, the days will start getting longer even as the winter weather starts to arrive.

The city surely is appreciating this beautiful early winter weather. I’ve been out walking to some of my favorite places and it seems everyone has the same idea. This week people were happily bustling down the street with their groceries and holiday supplies. Bicycles are still out in full force- with no snow impeding their riders.

I visited the library several times this week, just at the end of my block. I must live in one of the best locations in the city because at the end of the street I have the Main Library for Niagara Falls which is always full of people surfing the internet, reading newspapers and magazines on the big leather club chairs and exploring the big stack of books under a soaring cathedral ceiling with strategically placed windows allowing filtered sunlight to stream down the levels of floors.

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Constantly obsessed with pouring over the latest memoirs, I took out a stack of book twice this week  that I have been reading every spare minute of the holidays.

This week I finished The French House, by Don Wallace which was an interesting and comical look at a family’s experiences in staying in a small French cottage for vacations over the course of several years. It touched me with it’s candor and humor in times of desperation in attempting to make an empty and abandoned house a home over the course of a long period of time and through a series of financial ups & downs. (Familiar story to me!) It also helped me understand what the author learned over a period of greater than ten years- what he came to understand about moving into a neighborhood already well established and inhabited by long term residents. That’s a lesson that I think will personally help me as I work into the already established neighborhood of Memorial Parkway in Niagara Falls.

This week I started, stopped and returned again to the memoir named New Slow City by William Powers. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this book for a few reasons. Right now I am really going through a period of intensely difficult work- with a large workload and a jam packed schedule. This book really focuses on the concept of working less in order to enjoy life more. While I appreciate what the author is saying and what he is trying to teach me, I find it so impossible to relate at this point that I have had to put the book down and come back to it several times. However; I am absolutely thrilled at what I am learning that I can apply to our beloved business, 24 Below Gallery and Cafe. 24 Below was born because of my passion for giving local artists and artisans a platform to sell their products on a regular basis. It is more than a retail outlet to me; it is a community that connects artists with each other and consumers of art and food with the makers. This memoir has really helped me with an added dimension to our business that I will really be excited to talk about more in the future. In the meantime, the painting and flooring continues in our new gallery on Third Street.

Finally, the memoir I am currently immersed in- to the point of reading obsession is Billion Dollar Painter, by G. Eric Kuskey. WOW! This memoir is a fascinating deep insight into the world of mass art production and distribution from the artist Thomas Kinkaid. Before you serious art lovers turn your nose up and scoff at the “jigsaw puzzle art” like I did, give this book a chance. Mr. Kuskey, the author, headed up the Licensing Division of Thomas Kinkaid’s brand and gives us an honest look into the realization of the artist about the nature of his work and it’s disconnect from the art world. He shows us how Kinkaid’s viewpoints were formed, what he thought about the mass marketing of his art and what he was trying to accomplish with it. It is a seriously revealing look into the behind the scenes operation of the mega-market of art reproduction and into the corporation. To me, I can clearly see the meeting of sales-minded business people with the crazy cast of characters artists attract- right down to the fleet of Kirby Vacuum salesmen, the In House Company Preacher with too much power, and the simulacra of a Rockwellian life that the artist was trying to lead even through beer goggles- as he put on his costume of a born again Christian artist in a fairy tale cottage. Wow. I started the book yesterday and I am halfway through. I can’t even imagine what the rest will tell me.

Have I mentioned I am supposed to be working on the formal business plan for my business? Oh yes- this holiday has been sprinkled and spiced with various mad crazy binges of consumer data, marketing plans, income projections and demographical research so that I can complete our first formal business plan for 24 Below. The business plan, like so many other small businesses, has resided in my head and in my heart. I have steered the ship of 24 Below by instinct and the metaphorical stars… and it’s working quite well. Having had a smashing successful start, without the help of investors, grants, loans or financial backers, I am now going to see what type of economic incentives or small business loans might be available to us so that we can get serious about really growing the business to it’s full potential. Our beautiful art gallery has created such an enormous amount of goodwill and community that I don’t want to drop the ball and I want to manage the potential wisely. So I am completing a well thought out business plan and I am going to meet with knowledgeable advisors to see if we should consider going for a loan or other funding. This requires the business plan, which I am told should be about 20 pages of solid data and excellent writing. All this during a library book reading binge?

As if that wasn’t enough- I made cream puffs for Christmas! Spreading a little holiday cheer with my baking. The cream puffs are a nice simple dessert to make and a great way to share with friends my love for baking and pastry making. Thanks to Niagara Culinary Institute, I learned how not to be intimidated by creating beautiful pastries and soon I will be baking these beautiful little puffs of goodness for our gallery/cafe. I am including a link to a recipe for cream puffs at the Steamy Kitchen blog.  It’s not my recipe, but the recipe I use is from culinary school and goes by weight measurements and large batches.

I was so happy to deliver the cream puffs to our local heros at Niagara Falls Fire Department working on Christmas Eve, and to my working friends at the beautiful Piccirillo’s Florist, and especially to my very dear friend, whose 1o1 year old father requested them in the first place!

My cream puff brigade:  (now a delicious memory)

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The Plume of Niagara Points the Way Home

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Living in Niagara Falls has an added feature I should tell you about. That “cloud formation” you see there is NOT a tornado. It’s visible nearly everyday and it always guides us around.

That is the mist rising up from Niagara Falls. As the water goes over the Falls, it creates a huge plume of mist that gently rises up into a cloud. We can see it from all over the city. Here I am, many miles from home. Because I live not very many blocks from the Falls I have frequently used that plume to distinguish which direction I need to head to go home.

It’s more visible in winter because the cold air temperature creates more mist- and because there are no leaves on the trees so it is easier to see. I forget how lucky we are to have this constant. To have the constant rumble of the rapid water and the beautiful mist.

Well, I haven’t been writing for a few weeks and really it’s only because I have been so overwhelmed with renovating both a house and a business at the same time.

The holiday season is in complete and full swing and it is so wonderful to have good friends to celebrate with. This week I put the menorrah up in front of the Christmas tree and started lighting the candles at sunset. The cats are climbing the Christmas tree but so far the menorrah is safe.

So my house has a pretty “diverse” festivity:

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To end the week, we went to two different Christmas celebrations: so many good long hard laughs and spending time with friends. It’s been so good to get out and socialize- because even though the winter weather is very young- we already are a little stir crazy.

After the Christmas parties, we stopped at our dear friends’ house for a very special Winter Solstice celebration and fire. We got rid of old feelings and troubles and welcomed a brand new start and the return of the sunlight.

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It was great sitting around the bonfire in the winter! The sky was clear and the wind was nearly still. The fire was so hot and comfortable. Gosh my friends here in Niagara Falls are truly family. They just welcome you right into their family.

I’m not sure how this week will go- they are calling for a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day snow storm. If that’s true- the kids will be out using that magical Christmas snow to make Frosty the Snowman!

I’ll close with a pretty photo of a home in Niagara Falls all decked out in those nice large multi-colored nostalgic Christmas lights.

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Be safe everyone. And please- accept my most sincere wishes for a happy and peaceful holiday season.

 

 

 

If You Can Ice a Cookie, You Can Repoint Bricks

Here is me. I am standing in front of our old house project in the City of Niagara Falls. We have been working on it for 13 months. This is a roller coaster of emotions: energy, excitement, fear, dread, sore muscles, creativity, community, new friends, old friends and most of all- half assed projects I learned on YouTube. But they are getting done. This project is the story of my life: Never Give Up. Never, Ever, Ever, EVER. Never Give Up.

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I’m pretty excited in this picture because a construction crew showed up this week to work on the porch. The porch was quite literally falling off and contractors ran in fear everytime we showed it to them all summer long. Finally, a great crew took the job and started first thing Monday morning. This picture was taken before, during and after I hung on that fence crying tears of joy in the middle of the public view, while wearing this absolutely ridiculous painting outfit.

We were dealing with a time crunch. The crunch was that it was about 60 degrees but about to fall by 40 degrees. I had to finish painting the exterior of the garage and repointing the bricks in one day. No problem.

What IS repointing? Here’s my simple answer: It’s when the stuff between your bricks gets old and crumbles away and you need to replace it. Here’s how you know you need it. Your bricks have gaps between them, like the ones on the right side of this photo:

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There are two reasons I am doing this  myself:

1.) The estimate to have it done was $8,000.

2.) The directions were on YouTube and the supplies cost about $50.

Here’s what I did. It appears to have worked.

First, I purchased a bag of “mortar mix” from the home store. It says right on the bag it’s approved by masons. (haha). I mixed it up in a bucket by slowly adding water to it, until it was the consistency of very thick brownie batter. I used this really impressive looking attachment on my drill to mix it. Mixing by hand is a terrible thing. Do not do it.

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Then I sprayed the first few feet of bricks with a misting bottle of water. Just enough to get it damp. That helps the mortar adhere to the bricks. Then I filled a awesome pastry bag, (but actually made for mortar and sold in the masonry department), about halfway with the mortar mix. Twist the top around to keep the stuff in, point the tip into the space between the bricks, squeeze consistently and glide the bag betweeen bricks.

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This is going to hurt after about 1o hours.

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Let all that slop stay in there, overflowing a bit, for at least 10 minutes. Continue misting and filling every few feet at a time. Once the 10 minutes or so has passed, it’s time to sort of shape up that sloppy mortar job.

You use this tool that I cannot identify by name. It is sold in the mason department. It’s kind of like using the back of a spoon to smooth your icing. This tool is needed to make the mortar gently curve inward between bricks, which is for some reason desirable in my region. (The North East United States).

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It’s pretty simple, just drag it through the troughs between the bricks. Do a bunch of feet at a time, and then take out a thin spatula type tool and scrape off any extra mortar that is hanging around on the outside of the brick.

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Once you clean it all up, it’s going to look pretty good. You will be pretty damn impressed with yourself. Then you realise your hands and clothing are covered in this dry dust. You’re going to think this is going to be a gentle exfoliant and your hands will be as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

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But you will be wrong. Instead your skin will be very, very, very dry. This is when you get to use the skin lotion from Dollar Tree. It’s called Dermasil, and it is ONE DOLLAR. It works better than $15 bottles of lotion. It’s been on product review shows. It’s good stuff.

When you are done, you should have something like this, and this, and that is GREAT! You did it yourself and you saved thousands of dollars!

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Now for the “people part” of this story. This beautiful house was empty for at least seven years before we purchased it at a city auction. The neighbors have been watching it slowly falling apart. They were SO HAPPY when the porch started coming off, they came into the streets with cocktails and raised toasts to us and to the house and to the porch and to the glory of The Gods of Renovation and Saint Jude himself.

It felt a little like being on top of the world.

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This was surely a week for sentiments, for reflections and for relationships.

We continued work on our renovation project of an old house in the center of the city of Niagara Falls. We were racing to beat the weather with exterior painting, roofing and brick repointing.

Luckily on Monday I cleared my calender of everything else to work on our garage. So did “Albert”- a man that has become so more than a neighbor to me.

When I sold my suburban home and bid farewell to a mortgage more than 13 years ago, I did not know anyone in my new neighborhood. It wasn’t an easy move. I had to evict crackheads from my building and at the same time had uptight people across the street who moved away because they couldn’t live near lesbians. Yes, you read that right: the people across the street could cohabitate with crack heads but not lesbians.

It wasn’t the easiest transition from the suburbs to the inner city. For a long while people looked at me with suspicion. Finally after the prejudiced people moved away the tensions eased and more neighbors came out to talk to me. Soon enough I struck up a friendship with “Albert” (not his real name) from next door.

What an odd couple match it would seem. Albert is an older African American man, who collects metal and takes landscaping jobs. He’s quiet, deliberate and stays out of people’s way. Then there’s me. A loud mouth white woman who spent her days dressing up to go work in an office, who doesn’t seem to know how to speak softly.

But Albert seemed to take pity on me and offered me help when he saw I needed it. A true gentleman, Albert always politely let me screw things up in my yard and outside my house and did not criticize me when I came asking him for help. Through the years I started asked Albert for help more and more. He has helped me with things like roofing, painting, building things for my yard.

So when we took on this renovation project, we knew immediately that we could only trust Albert to work on the house with us. All Spring, Summer and Fall Albert has worked side by side with us slowly and methodically replacing cedar shingles, scraping old paint, and repainting the house. He took it upon himself to reglaze our beautiful old windows and replace the awning over the side door. Albert understands old houses- it has been his life’s work.

Over the course of the Summer, Albert has spent a lot of time working on the house with us. On one particular day the whole family was working together on drywall when Albert came in to help. We wound up on a lunchbreak and in the summer breeze and camaraderie, I jokingly asked him to be my adopted Dad. (My father and step father are both deceased).

He laughed and shook his head, “Oh no… no no no ma’am”. Albert doesn’t want anymore kids. Claiming that he’s not a hands-on kind of Dad he tried to bow out.

But I am relentless.

Over the remainder of the summer I went out of my way to get Albert’s advice and knowledge on old houses. On how cedar shingles stack. How weights inside a window casing work. How you trim back an eighty year old flowering shrub without killing it. (fingers crossed)

Finally this week, we reached our bonding moment. This Monday when I was determined to paint the garage before the snow flies, Albert was just as determined to put the new roof on the garage before the weather could turn bad. We worked hard side by side for hours- with the gusting wind blowing leaves and branches onto us, Albert called down from the roof to me and predicted how many minutes until the rain would start.

As I stood on the ladder to reach the trim under the gutters, Albert cautioned me on how to secure the ladder and just how high up was safe to stand. I detected a protective streak. As Albert scraped the old moss off the roof before laying the new tiles, he made sure to warn me not to look in that direction else the wind could blow the moss in my eyes.

The bonding was solidified when a representative from the water department came out to evaluate the placement of a meter; just the first step toward having water flowing in the house again! The results weren’t great. The water department person came up to tell me whey they couldn’t install a meter; and that I most likely needed an entirely new water line to the house. Albert came down from the garage and stood by my side. I didn’t hesitate to introduce him to the water man, and the man respectfully explained the situation to Albert as well as me.

At that moment I realized Albert cared about me like a daughter. (Maybe) At least he felt protective and caring and … and… well, I got to feel the presence of an older father figure standing next to me to make sure that I was doing okay.

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We worked all the way till the rain started that day and we continue to work on that house. I tried to take Albert’s picture but he told me he’s camera shy. He told me he doesn’t want to ruin his “mystique”. So I got a silhouette shot that I can share with you without spoiling his intrigue.

As I end this entry, my mind is already wandering to dreams of decorating the inside of this house one day. Thoughts of table runners, draperies and candlesticks are filling my head. Some fine day we will turn on the water, turn up the heat and really turn that house back into a home.

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Late Night Double Feature Picture Show

In a manic rush of the changing seasons, coming holidays and work overload this week has been and incredible challenge of stamina, sanity and amusement!

There is so much to do here in Niagara that a person can go crazy narrowing down the choices.  I had to sacrifice some of the great events this week but in the end I had a great time.

This month marks the one year point since we made the winning bid on a city auction for a lovely craftsman duplex in a strong neighborhood. Our purchase and renovation has been featured in Circa, on online magazine for old house lovers.

Since that time, we’ve waited out a winter and begun work to the graceful old girl and continue to push ahead. We toiled in the summer heat with demo and endless drywall and painting projects. Our goal of moving into the house by this Thanksgiving has had to be postponed but we are persevering with a loving renovation.

I found a photo of a beautiful arts and crafts era decoration on the web early in the project and struggled for a way to somehow fit it into our home. I decided to replicate that design for our address numbers.

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(Inspiration, Left / New House Numbers, Right)

 

In the middle of the week I was lucky enough to be invited to a kirtan in nearby North Tonawanda.  Just a 15 minute drive found me and a few good friends at a small historic Strand Theater in the city. We were greeted by welcoming people in a warm and friendly cozy building. At the bar was a buffet of food that folks brought in to share along with smiling faces and warm greetings. The kirtan was lead by a group of talented and glowing people.  The best way I can describe a kirtan for those who have never attended is that it is a singing, chanting meditation of the Hindu tradition- but open to everyone. You don’t need to know what the words mean. Just the rhythm, harmony and repetition of the sounds and the syllables slows your breath and clears your mind so that you can connect to a place that soothes your spirit. The theater is informal- and homespun. We sat on cushions on the floor and soft comfortable sofas that took the place of theater seating. The walls and ceiling were illuminated by tiny green dots of light- stars that slowly moved around and above us during the enchanting experience.

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The night was so healing for me that I will be sure to watch for upcoming events thanks to the facebook group Buffalo Kirtan. Yet another great way to connect with my fellow Western New Yorkers who are leading an eclectic life.

From spiritual highness to experiential strangeness the week ended on a note of sheer abandon at the Rocky Horror Picture Show hosted in the beautiful Riviera Theater. Come as you are or come as you want to be; this Rocky Horror Picture Party is hands-down the best one I have been to since 1988. The Riviera doesn’t “tolerate” Rocky Horror, it CELEBRATES it! Prop bags were for sale (sold out!) and we were allowed ALL of the props from rice to water guns from toast to playing cards and all the toilet paper we could throw!

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The theater was packed with revelers and the mood was all for one. Suddenly buddies with the people in the rows behind and in front of us, we tossed inflated condoms like beach balls across the crowds. We shared toilet paper rolls to relaunch and covered each other during the rain storm. Before the picture show began we were surely treated to amazing drag performances and the slow burning sizzling tease of Burlesque.  By the time the midnight showing of Rocky Horror ended, the theater looked like a shipwreck and we were all so thankful to know that volunteers were staying for an all-night cleanup and that the Riviera was not going to be stuck with 5200 playing cards and 2800 pieces of dry toast.

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This week ends back where it started; lovingly working away on this old craftsman house. Promising her we’d be there before the winter is over and that she has already suffered her last year without heat. Today we work on more brick repointing, interior painting and prep for refinishing the beautiful hard wood front door.

What a whirlwind of a week! What a great place to call home.

Bowling Alleys, Soup and Change

A week that started off with an 80 degree high temp ended in the 30’s and I have finally accepted that it is again Fall. Walking through the crunching leaves scattered over the sidewalks I feel time ticking down to the winter. This means it’s time for indoor entertainment, cooking and change.

We were invited by some friends to meet up at a local bowling alley (Rapids Bowling Center)  for Karaoke Night last weekend. I stepped out of the car and walked into a bizarre independent film scene. The bowling alley was flooded with a mellow blue glow from the night time games on the lanes. The welcoming and roomy lounge was filled with people from every walk of life laughing and singing and dancing.

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The bar went wild for Rob Z of Z-Licious Karaoke who lead Karaoke with so much glee- dancing and singing that his happy spirit was contagious! Soon we were cheering on everybody who came up to sing- and there were some amazing singers. The most unlikely choices of song for each person. A man who came in looking like a clergyman calmly strode to the mic- and the burst out “BABY GOT BACK”! A tough guy with tattoos and a backwards baseball hat sang Love Ballads from the 70’s.

Rapids is like an outpost of strangers in a strange land. Even the most misfit shy and awkward person can make friends and bond with the group of former high school glory girls who are all there to just have a good time. People at the edge of 22 are high fiving 70 year old ladies. No judgements.

Saturday night Karaoke at the Rapids turns out to be a hell of a good time!  If you’re into bar food this is also the place to be. We snacked on a huge platter of french fries smothered in golden cheddar cheese, bacon and ranch dressing. Now I have a plan for some indoor winter fun.

My other cold weather coping mechanism is cooking. And this nearly 50 degree drop in temperature week brought out a taste for some soup. What’s better to warm up a chilly old house than a simmering pot on the stove?

I found a very simple quick soup that was done in less than an hour start to finish! Not a gourmet-artisanal-hand-crafted-everything-from-scratch kind of thing but a good old modern America comfort soup. It popped up on social media last week and I thought steamy soup in my kitchen was just the thing to chase away the Fall chill. It’s called “Lasagna Soup” and though it contains not all the ingredients of a great lasagna, it does deliver on it’s promise of tomato-ey goodness with savory Italian spices and belly warming ground beef and noodles. You can find the recipe HERE at Taste of Home.

We people of Western New York state are great at adapting to changes. It’s in our blood to transform from shorts at the beginning of the week to jeans and sweaters by the end of the week. Viva La Niagara!