Giving Thanks

Friends are the family you choose

by Susan Baldani

For those who may be far away from their families or not able to celebrate Thanksgiving with them for other reasons, consider having a Friendsgiving instead. Invite those people who have made a positive impact on your life and who you would love to have seated around your holiday table. After all, the day is about being thankful and sharing with others.

In her popular blog, Life of Alley, Alley shows us just how to do this. Originally from Connecticut and living in Houston since 2014, she created her blog as a place where women could go to find inspiration, advice, and encouragement from other women; her blog covers everything from home décor and wellness to food and beauty.

Last year, Alley threw a boho-styled Friendsgiving in her backyard. Luckily, in Houston, the weather is usually mild enough to be comfortable outside in late November.

She mentions on her blog that the unofficial holiday of Friendsgiving seems to have popped up in the mid-1990s. A combination of the words “Friends” and “Thanksgiving”, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Friends come together to celebrate Thanksgiving and give thanks for one another.

Alley encourages hosts to think outside the box when it comes to the menu. There’s no rule that says you have to stick to traditional Thanksgiving foods, although some people might be upset if they don’t find a turkey on the table.

Also, decide how you’ll get all the food on the table, whatever it may be. Will you do all the cooking, or will you roast the turkey and have your friends each bring a side dish? Or, will you ask guests to bring a bottle of wine or dessert? Maybe you would prefer to sit back and relax and have the entire dinner, from appetizers to dessert, catered. You could even go a step further and hire someone who can serve and take care of clean up. Friendsgiving, says Alley, should be a relaxed event where you can sit back and have a great time with good friends.

Alternatively, if you are invited to a Friendsgiving and it’s not clear on the invitation, she suggests asking the host(s) what they would like you to bring. If no food is needed, then bring a bottle of wine or a small thank you gift such as flowers or a candle.

To find out more about Alley and to check out her blog, go to

Alley’s tips for a warm, wonderful, and successful Friendsgiving:

  • Assess your space and seating area in order to determine how many people you can comfortably accommodate. Everyone should have a spot at the table and a comfortable seat.
  • Then, create your guest list and send out invitations. Keep track of how who responds and how many will be attending.
  • Organize your table linens, plates, and silverware to make sure you have the right amount of supplies.
  • Next, plan your menu, and decide who will prepare it.

Written for Cypress Lifestyle magazine in Cypress, Texas.

Sound Technology

How advancements in devices have led to better hearing

By Sue Baldani

Like our other senses, hearing is paramount to enjoying life to its fullest. The better we can communicate, the more successful we’ll be in relationships, careers, and interactions with the world around us.

Fortunately for those with mild to moderate hearing loss, hearing devices have undergone dramatic technological improvements over the years. They are basically now mini-computers, and are capable of many different functions.

“The work I get to do allows me to feel like a superhero,” says Dr. Tina Jessee, an audiologist who has been practicing since the early 90s. “It’s amazing because I really can change people’s lives with the technology I’m fitting.”

She opened Good Sound Audiology in 2002, which now has locations in Mesa, Gilbert, and Sun Lakes. She knows that some people are resistant to the idea of hearing aids, or may be in denial that they need them.

“It’s an emotional disease,” says Dr, Jessee. “It might generate feelings of aging. Hearing loss isolates us and causes anger and depression.”

One of her patients, Thomas Baer, is glad that he found Dr. Jessee back in the early 2000s. Born with a birth defect that caused hearing issues, he gave up on seeking help many years before.

“I never really had great experiences with hearing aids,” says Thomas. “They were huge and clunky and broke down quite often.”

It wasn’t until he got married that he and his wife Brenda talked it over and decided he should give hearing aids another chance.

“I was missing out on so many things,” he says. “It’s really stressful on your partner because you keep having to ask them to repeat or sometimes you think you heard it this way and it wasn’t that way.”

Dr. Jessee says modern hearing aids are really changing people’s lives, because hearing better is living better. They can effectively communicate with friends and family.

“Dr. Jessee wants you to not only hear, but to hear with a capital H, because she wants that experience to be perfect for you,” says Thomas. 

There are now blue tooth hearing devices, she explains, so anything that comes out of your smartphone can go directly through your hearing devices. So, if you want to go for a run and listen to music, you don’t need to wear anything else. You can double tap on your hearing devices and just like with Alexa, you can ask, “What’s the capital of New York?” or “How’s the weather in Panama?” They can also count your steps or call someone if you fall down.

For Thomas, these newer hearing devices continue to have a positive effect not only on his life, but for those around him as well.

“Phone conversations, music, and television can be streamed directly into my ears, and I can control the volume for myself without having to make it loud for everybody in the room,” he says.

He and Dr. Jessee meet on a quarterly basis, so she can find out the types of experiences he is having and how his hearing devices may have to be tweaked to accommodate those changes.

“What makes Dr. Jessee so great is that she listens so that I can hear better,” says Thomas. “She’ll ask me what I’m struggling with and can turn settings up or down. I also have the ability to do that myself on my phone application. The jumps in technology have been phenomenal.

One of the jokes I have with Dr. Jessee is that I’m pretty much an every three- or four-year upgrader because I’m a technology guy, that’s my career, and I just love the advances they’re making.”

And he says, having better hearing has improved his relationship with his wife.

“We are now more clear to each other,” he says. “I’m not missing conversations.  We have a grandson and it’s really great to listen to him and hear him laugh.”

The couple also spend a lot of time outdoors, and now Thomas can hear the birds singing. And because his hearing devices are water resistant, he can exercise as vigorously as he wants. Perspiration will not affect them.

“Don’t hesitate,” he says. “Go to an audiologist like Dr. Jessee. You’re missing out on so much in life. There’s no excuse now not to go get them. Go check with someone, because you may have preconceived ideas of what hearing aids are and they have changed dramatically.”

Dr. Jessee agrees. “We have this amazing technology now, and I really want people to understand how wonderful better hearing is. It’s life changing. Joy and satisfaction of life increases.”

Written for Chandler Lifestyle magazine in Chandler, Arizona.

Culinary Bootcamp

How a mom improved her cooking skills while America Watched

By Susan Baldani

Dolores Aguilar-Fernandez of Cypress remembers when walking into her kitchen and getting ready to cook for her family would almost cause her to have a panic attack. The working wife and mom was never sure what to cook, how it would come out, and whether or not she would cut herself or burn the dish. About 10 years ago, she cut her pinky finger so badly while chopping, that she ended up needing seven stitches. Even with all these clues, she didn’t realize just how bad a cook she actually was.

“My daughter, Elena (now 10 years old), would give me hints sometimes,” says Dolores. “When she would ask who was cooking and I would say Dad, she always gave a big sigh of relief.”

A couple of summers ago, she and Elena were channel surfing when they stumbled upon the Food Network show “Worst Cooks in America.”

“So, we’re watching, and five minutes into it, my daughter looks at me and says, ‘Mom, that’s you.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

When she mentioned it to her husband, Ruben Fernandez, who she has been married to for 14 years now, he confirmed their daughter was right.

After hearing that, Dolores decided to apply to be a contestant on “Worst Cooks in America.”

“I think a year passed, and then they called me,” she says. “While on the phone with a producer, I was feeding my 3-year-old son (Oliver, who is now 4) ice cream for lunch. What timing! I had interviews with different producers, and then they told me I was in.”

Dolores, a recruiter for AT&T, had told her boss months in advance that this might happen.

“I worked with the company for so many years that I had already added so much vacation time that it covered it,” she says. “And my coworkers covered for me.”

The show taped in New York earlier this year, and now Dolores says that city is her second home.

“They literally had us quarantined in a hotel before quarantining took effect, so we were already prepared,” she says.

As per her contract, she cannot say how long she was there. It was hard being away from her family though.

“We missed each other a lot. What helped was FaceTime. Without that, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

She’s very thankful that so many people in her life chipped in so she could take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Dolores was nervous about meeting the other contestants and worried about how they would all get along since they would be together so much.  

“It was amazing to me how quickly we clicked and bonded,” she says. “We were all bad cooks, so we had something in common, and we really fed off each other. We still talk today, and we’re planning to get together once COVID is over and it’s safe to travel again.”

Her first day on the show was nerve racking, to say the least.

“When I walked in, I couldn’t believe I was there after seeing it on television,” says Dolores. “First, I thought I was going to throw up, and then I was afraid I was going to faint and wondered who was going to carry me off the set. But once the chefs (Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli) start ordering me around, I forgot about the cameras and lights because I knew I had to get things done.”

She said it was an unbelievable experience to taste Chefs Anne and Alex’s food: “It was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Of course, there were some mishaps on the show, which she can now laugh about.

“On the first episode, I cut my finger twice, once on a can, and had to go to one of those urgent cares to get a tetanus shot,” she says. “At some point on the show, you’ll see all these Band-Aids on my hands. And on the second episode, I tripped twice. It was so embarrassing.”

Dolores was on Season 20, which aired earlier this year. Although she didn’t win, she did make it to the final four.

She also learned quite a few new skills. She now cooks steaks, and also makes a gourmet burger that she prepared on the show and that her husband loves.

“I’m practicing my skills with my husband and kids,” she says.

She feeds her family much healthier foods now that she knows how to prepare them instead of relying on quick, non-nutritious meals.

“You do it because it’s convenient,” says Dolores. “We’re at a time where we don’t have the luxury that the mother can be home. But Elena’s eating the asparagus I make now. That alone is enough for the sacrifice of leaving my family to go on the show.”

To see Dolores in action on the show, click the link below:

Written for Cypress Lifestyle magazine in Cypress, Texas.

Dressing Up the Scottsdale Waterfront

Bright and beautiful bins make litter disappear  

By Susan Baldani

Walking along the Scottsdale waterfront, you’ll notice some colorful works of art. Not only are they wonderful to look at, but they’re extremely functional as well. Within the fanciful veneers, you’ll find garbage and recyclable receptacles.

“I thought it was really a neat and original idea to take these ordinary trash cans that you never really look at and make them part of the arts events,” says Mary Neubauer, President’s Professor of Sculpture at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.   

Installed in May, these receptacles feature hummingbirds, flowers, butterflies and abstract whirly patterns. There are eight color combinations, including a blue pattern over silver and a bright blue over yellow. Besides the ascetic appeal, recycled metal from old dumpsters was incorporated, reinforcing the idea of recycling.

“I like to work with concepts of regional fauna and flora, so those were my themes,” says Neubauer.

In addition to metal, she also works in stone. Her works of art can be found throughout Arizona, as well as in Italy, Switzerland and France.

“I really enjoyed this project because it is making something so ordinary and functional have a different meaning,” says Neubauer.

Written for Scottsdale Lifestyle magazine in Arizona.

Culinary Compositions

Delicious and delectable bites across the board

By Susan Baldani

Charcuterie boards are an easy and delicious way to bring people together. Toni Zorich, owner of Dammi Vino, grew up in an Italian household. When she creates a board for her family, she makes sure to always include prosciutto and Italian cheeses.

“I’m Italian, and we sit around the table and drink wine and eat food all the time,” she says. “I came up with Dammi Vino, which roughly translates to ‘Feed me wine.’ It’s what I do best in life.”

Dammi Vino is a local company providing unique food and wine experiences. Their custom charcuterie boards often include such favorites as prosciutto, focaccia crackers, and barrel-aged cheeses. And, says Toni, they are full to the brim with the highest quality foods.

“They are built with lots of care and much love because this is a family business,” she says. “As much as I would like to take credit for it, I could not do this without my mom, my fiancé, or his sister.”

What she puts on a board depends on the client and the event. It can be fancy and festive for a romantic picnic or girls’ night out, or more down to earth and manly for a sporting event or poker game. But each one is an original.

“Part of the fun with my boards is you can get wine that pairs with it, or a few different bottles that pair with certain bites,” says Toni. “It just takes it to another level.”

To find out more, go to

Starting with green olives and going clockwise:

[see picture above]

Castelvetrano Olives

These olives have a sweet, subtle flavor.

Honey Goat Gouda

An in-between hard and soft cheese with a great subtle, salty, and sweet flavor.


A traditional Italian dry-cured meat sliced very thin. It has a great saltiness.

Pretzel Thins

A cracker that is familiar to people, and has a flavor that hits everyone’s palate well.

Peppered Salami / Hard Salami

A meat with a slight spice flavor that brings a familiarity as something your guests can easily identify

Soft Brie Cheese

Pairs well with everything. It provides a perfect vessel for jams, jellies and honey.

Homemade Basil Strawberry Jam

Jams and jellies add flavor and color. This jam is best paired with the Brie cheese.

Herbed Pita Crisps

A cracker that brings more interesting flavors to the charcuterie board.


An Italian cured meat that brings sweet and salty to the board. It is one of the most delicious elements and always the first to go.

Kalamata Olives

These popular olives have a briny and salty flavor that many palates find pleasing.

Bellavitano Chardonnay Cheese

A great hard cheese with bites of salty, buttery and floral notes.

Rosemary to garnish

Written for Franklin Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.

Attire That Inspires

Outfitting women with the tools to get the job done

By Susan Baldani

Dress for Success Nashville, a program through the YWCA, has been in operation for close to 10 years now. A local affiliate of the world-wide organization, it has helped countless women become financially secure.

“I believe very much in the YW’s mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and loving peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all,” says Sharon Roberson, the President and CEO of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. “Dress for Success is a crucial part of that mission because we do believe that women need support and career development tools in order to be empowered.”

Women are referred to Dress for Success from one of their many partner organizations in the community. These are women who have a desire to transition to a higher economic level through professional development. Dress for Success provides the clothes, the tools, and a network for women to help them become financially independent. This, in turn, leads to more security for their families.  

A career specialist helps women put together their resumes. Even if they have never been in the workforce, these specialists help them discover the skills they have and how to market them.

Before an interview, a woman is given what they call a “suiting,” which consists of an interview outfit and accessories. Wearing the appropriate outfit instills the confidence needed to make a positive first impression. If the woman gets the job, she is then able to return and receive a week’s worth of clothing, which she can mix and match as she desires.

Many of these women, says Roberson, have never had anyone pamper them or encouraged them to feel good about themselves.

“We also have a professional women’s group that mentors our clients, because when you get into the workforce, the first step is getting the job, but keeping the job is the second step,” she says.

Some of the women who have gone through Dress for Success and other YWCA programs come back to be mentors themselves.

“They are our greatest pride, says Roberson. “There are no better teachers than those who have been there.”

To support this invaluable program, go to Professional women can donate their time; others can hold a clothing drive, or financially assist the program. If anyone in Williamson County is interested in Dress for Success and/or any women’s organizations as a whole, Roberson would be happy to speak with them.

“For $250.00, you can cover the cost of an interview suiting for one client,” says Roberson. “You can give a woman a new lease on life with this $250.00.”

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle Magazine in Tennessee.

Designer Dreams

Honoring a family’s legacy

By Susan Baldani

Biridiana Torres’s family has a long history of following the American dream. Her grandfather, Maximiano Garcilazo, came to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, in his early 20s to pursue a better life. Shortly after, he brought his wife Margarita to join him so they could raise their children in their newly adopted country. Biri’s mother, Monica, was born in the United States.

When Biri decided to pursue her own dream of starting her fashion design business, IXO’LOYANA, her family couldn’t have been more supportive. Her mother has become her go-to person when she needs a second opinion, and Biri often sends her pictures of dresses and asks her for feedback. Her father, Arturo Martinez, who was born in Mexico, also loves to see her creations.

“My parents are very proud and excited,” says Biri. “They love seeing a new finished dress or hearing about new opportunities.”

Biri knew from a young age that she wanted to design dresses. As a little girl, she would carry a notebook in which she would sketch every day. In high school, when she was getting ready for her junior prom, she couldn’t find a dress that matched the vision in her head. She ended up having to settle for what she could buy in a store.

“In my senior year, I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen again,’” she says. “So, for senior prom, I made my own dress. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I just did it. Surprisingly, it turned out really nice.”

That’s when she knew for sure that designing was her passion and what she wanted to do going forward. She applied to Colorado University and was accepted into their Design and Construction program. In addition to obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Apparel and Merchandising in 2016, she also interned for the Wedding Seamstress in Arvada in her junior year and at the Anabella Poletti Design House in Fort Collins in her senior year. The skills she learned at both places were invaluable.

“While I was interning, I was able to do things I didn’t learn in college,” says Biri. “I learned all the tricks you need to know,  such as working with lace, which is so delicate, and how to make a wedding dress look structured.  I also learned awesome tricks to make fittings and alterations easier.”

The first custom dress she made on consignment was in 2016 for a teenager celebrating her quinceañera, a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday common in many Spanish-speaking families. Shortly after, in 2017, she opened an Etsy Shop, and the orders started pouring in.

“I got many requests for custom dresses,” says Biri. “Everything from a confirmation dress and a prom dress, to a first communion dress and wedding dress. Basically, anything that was formalwear.”

All of these dresses were custom designed for a particular individual, so no two dresses were the same. On average, it takes about two months to complete a custom dress, but she can make them faster if necessary. She also works on multiple dresses at a time. 

Since making these dresses is very time consuming, she hasn’t had the time to do much else. Until now.

“I’m taking a break from custom dressing and taking the time to design a collection,” says Biri. “By making a collection, I feel that I can truly express myself as a designer. I have the ability to be very innovative and very creative.”

She is also doing this collection to reintroduce herself as an individual and as a designer. She has seen many small businesses doing Meet the Maker posts on their social media pages, and decided that she is going to do a Meet the Maker collection. In this way, she says, she can let everyone know who she is, but in dress form.  There will be a total of six dresses in the collection.

“Each dress is going to represent me in some sort of way,” says Biri. “So, the first dress is describing my Mexican American roots. I call it Beautiful Roots.”

When you see it at first glance, it’s going to say USA on the corset which will be in sequins, which are reversible. The American flag is on a short, belted skirt. But then, when I switch the sequins up, it will reveal the word Mexico. And when I drop the skirt it becomes a long skirt which will reveal the Mexican flag.”

Biri removed a Mexican eagle from a shirt she already had and sewed it onto the skirt to look like part of the flag. For the American portion of the skirt, she says she was lucky to find the most perfect upholstery fabric for the blue and white stars and the red and white stripes. It works wonderfully because it gives the skirt some structure.

For the second dress in the collection, she decided to do an inside out dress. This is to show how much work it takes to make a dress. The third dress will be an ethical dress that uses vegan leather; Biri is a vegan. The fourth dress will represent how much family means to her,  so she’ll be using a family tree as an inspiration. The fifth dress will represent her aunt’s name, IXA’LOYANA, which is also the name of her brand.

This name, she says, has a meaning behind it. Many of the letters represent the moon in some way.

The first two letters, she says, represent Ix Chel, a moon goddess from Mayan mythology. The “L” represents Luna, which is Spanish for moon. The “O” represents the shape of the moon, and “ANA” are the last letters of her full name, Biridiana. And Diana, in Roman Mythology, is a moon goddess as well.

“When I first started, I remember looking up at the sky whenever I didn’t feel inspired,” says Biri. “It would make me realize that we live in a beautiful world with a beautiful sky and moon, which I connect with my brand because I feel it is classy and edgy.”

The last and final dress in the collection will be more of a casual outfit. This will be something that she would wear to a show or a concert. She expects the whole collection to take about five to six months to complete.

“I feel blessed to have the opportunity to start a business in the U.S. because my family sacrificed and worked very hard to make it to this country,” she says. “I also feel inspired to continue growing and achieve more not only for me, but for my family and community as well.”

To learn more about Biri and IXA’LOYANA, go to

Written for Loveland & South Lifestyle magazine in Colorado.

Pass the Syrup

Pancakes are back on the breakfast menu

By Susan Baldani

When Josie Johnson was diagnosed with a gluten allergy many years ago, one of the foods she missed the most were pancakes. So, she started making her own mixes in her kitchen in Bend. Today, Josie’s Best Gluten Free Mixes are being sold throughout the U.S.

“When my husband and I were first dating, I really become obsessed with making a gluten-free pancake that we both could enjoy,” she says. (Marty, unlike Josie, doesn’t have a gluten allergy.) “So, I came up with one we really liked it and started giving it to family and friends. They loved them.”

The company’s warehouse is based in Sisters. All products are made with minimal ingredients, and can be enjoyed by people with many different food allergies. They contain no peanuts, no tree nuts, no dairy, and no gluten. In addition to pancake mixes, which are their number one seller, the company also offers mixes for waffles, muffins, and crepes.

Josie finds her work extremely rewarding. Many of her customers tell her that they had given up on pancakes until her mixes came along.

“For me, it feels like warmth and family and all the good  things about being a kid, with sticky syrupy fingers,” she says. “I’m grateful to know that I can insert some of that happiness back into people’s lives.”

To learn more, go to

Gluten Free Pancake Berry Bake Recipe


  • 2 cup batch of Josie’s Best GF Pancake batter (per instructions, you will need an egg, oil of choice, milk of choice)
  • 2 cups frozen berries (or any fruit)
  • ½ a lemon
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 2-4 tsps.  sugar of choice (Josie uses coconut sugar )


  • Line a square 8×8 baking dish with parchment and preheat oven to 350°.
  • Mix up pancake batter following instructions on the back of the bag.
  • Add the juice of ½ of lemon to batter. 
  • Toss frozen berries with 1-2 tsps. sugar and pour into baking dish.
  • Pour batter on top. Sprinkle with remaining sugar.
  • Bake for about one hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with only a few moist crumbs. 
  • Allow to cool slightly and enjoy!  

Written for Bend Lifestyle magazine in Bend, Oregon.

When home and school are one and the same

By Susan Baldani

It looks like distance learning is here to stay in many communities around the country this fall. At least this time around, unlike in the spring, parents have a chance to prepare. It’s critical for children to have the right environment in which to learn and setting up a dedicated learning area in your home can make a world of difference in their academic success.

There are many factors that go into choosing the right spot. It’s important that it be quiet and away from distractions such as televisions, radios, and/or household activity. This can be a dining room that’s rarely used, a spare bedroom, or an area in a finished basement. If possible, it’s better to set it up outside of children’s own bedrooms. For one thing, there are too many temptations such as toys and games there. For another, their bedroom should be the place they can go to relax when they’re done with their school day.

In whatever room or area that you choose, make it an enticing space where your children will want to go and spend time. Make sure there is a flat surface on which to work. This can be a desk or some kind of table with enough room for a computer and writing area. Comfortable seating and good lighting are also a must. Of course, outlets must be close by too.

Keep the area organized by making cubbies out of plastic crates or even small cardboard boxes that kids can decorate. These can be used to store books, folders, and notebooks, as well as ongoing and completed projects. Have a tray or small boxes to hold pens, pencils, scissors, glue, and whatever other supplies a child might need to complete assignments. To encourage tidiness with younger children, make a chart with stickers that children can achieve when they clean up their work areas at the end of the day. This way, they can begin the next morning in a neat and functional “classroom.” 

We don’t know how long  these COVID-19 restrictions will last, but for now at least, children are having to adapt to a whole new way of learning. Let’s make their home learning environment a stimulating and interesting place to spend their school days.

Written for The Country Register published throughout the U.S. and Canada.

America strong – September 11, 2001


What can be said that hasn’t been already said? How many more tears will be shed over this tragedy? Even if you hadn’t lost someone personally that day, you still lost a lot. A sense of security in our homeland, in our places of work, in our routines, and in our streets. Our innocence of evil and the faith that terrorism would never strike us on our soil. Gone.

But we also gained a lot. The strength to go on and live our lives even in the face of danger, the overwhelming appreciation of those who run toward death and destruction instead of away from it. A pride in our nation that may have been forgotten. The ability for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds to come together to offer support for their fellow man. Let’s find that again. One Nation, Under God.

Even with all of our troubles, and especially today, I am proud to be an American.