Holiday Staples: Old and New

Bottoms Up: Cocktails with Good-For-You Ingredients

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I wanted to make a fun and not-so-naughty holiday cocktail and went with a twist on a margarita for our Christmas party. A hibiscus margarita is one of my favorites and I usually make them with hibiscus tea sweetened with honey, lime juice and tequila, with a dash of orange bitters. For the holiday version, I simmered the hibiscus tea in a pot with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks. (Yes, the house smelled great!) I transferred the cooled tea to a pitcher, adding lime juice, frozen cherries, and bitters. A vintage pitcher and glasses found at local thrift and antique shops made it even more festive. Later, for a Christmas brunch, I added the spiced hibiscus tea to prosecco.

More on better-for-you cocktails: My story for Purist magazine, with drinks made in LA, NY and Aspen.

History with Her

When I was in high school, I attended a program called the “Presidential Classroom for Young Americans” in Washington, D.C., with other idealistic, civic-minded teens who wanted to rule the world. I remember meeting my Congressman, sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives, and feeling so inspired. I didn’t end up in the political arena, but I’m so excited for the next generation of young women seeing history being made and thinking they want to be President one day.

I vote in every election and proudly wear the sticker. Today, I walked to and from my neighborhood polling station and had a few friendly exchanges with neighbors. It was a lovely Southern California evening and I paused to remind myself about how very lucky we are to vote for our leaders and shape our futures.

I’m grateful my parents raised me to be aware and to be part of the process, whether that means casting a vote for the candidate of your choice or taking a stand and fighting for what is right. It’s an honor. 

Violinist in the Park

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As I looped around the park during my morning walk, I saw this guy carefully removing the violin from its case and I stopped to hear him start to play. Just one note and memories of my violin-playing school days came to me. Like how Mr. Gelfer loved the Beatles and we played “Eleanor Rigby” for one of our junior high school concerts. I didn’t practice as often as I was instructed to and I didn’t quite get all the parts of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto, but I always loved being in the orchestra, and it’s amazing how good it feels to hear the sounds of those strings.

Remembering My Dad, the Coach

my dad the coachWhen I was growing up, my Dad was a high school coach—first football and basketball, then track and cross-country.

This meant learning lessons from fields, courts, and tracks even before my brother and I were old enough to play sports on our own. He repeated Vince Lombardi and John Wooden quotes and shared stories of legendary sports heroes, like the great Yankee Lou Gehrig, nicknamed the Iron Horse for his commitment and endurance on the baseball field.

We watched a lot of sports together. When he coached high school football, we went to the games and cheered for the Westhampton Beach Hurricanes. Autumn Saturdays were for high school games and we planned dinners on Sunday around football games. We liked all the home teams: the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, and Jets. Yes, it’s possible to be a fan of two different home teams—why not?

We were taught that giving it your best was expected. “As long as you try your best” applied to everything. You can do it. Try and try again—that’s courage. It’s a game of inches, he said after a player made (or missed) the end zone, basket, or base, or when a runner reached the finish line. You have to work hard, stay focused, and go for it.

Athletic skills and physical feats were appreciated and even marvelled at, but we were taught that mental toughness was what made a true champion. Determination and dedication—that’s what you need to win. You can’t just show up—you have to prepare and play hard, no matter the circumstances. To succeed, practice is as important as competition. So is putting your heart into what you’re doing. You have to love the game and the pursuit.

He said “have fun” instead of “good luck.” After all, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. “Be a good sport” applied to all. The highest value should be placed on being a good teammate, keeping your ego in check, maintaining your cool, playing by the rules, persevering when things get tough, and respecting your opponents. Attitude is everything.

It’s not right to root against someone. A sportsmanship award is better than a first-place trophy. If you don’t have an allegiance to a team or athlete, go for the underdog. He thought blow-outs were boring, even if your favorite team was the one in the lead. What he wanted to watch was a good game.

In school, joining a sports team was encouraged and also seemed like the natural thing to do. I’m so glad I did. I ran cross-country and track and the lessons I learned are with me today, decades later. I wasn’t a fast runner, but my dad was proud of me because I trained hard, tried my best, and loved being on the team.

When I went to college at Albany State, I joined the school newspaper with the intention of covering sports. My favorite was college basketball. In the last couple of years, Albany’s team has made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament. This was an opportunity for my Dad to talk to me about hoops and send me an email with the simple subject line: “Go Great Danes.”

Our mutual love of sports was a bond we maintained and treasured. Through email, we would share links to articles or video clips that were inspiring—recent ones include a video segment on Terry Fox, feature stories on Roberto Clemente and Yasiel Puig, a commentary about Phil Jackson and the Knicks, and an old photo he found online of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. His comments were short and sweet: “good stuff,” “inspirational,” “get a tissue,” or “enjoy.”

After I moved to Los Angeles, he sent me an article of great LA sports figures and we were able to go to a UCLA basketball game. When I recently joined a fantasy football league with friends, he wanted to know the players I had on my team and he’d notice how my star quarterback or running back was performing. During the post-retirement visits to California my parents took, we watched Sunday football games together at my home and I planned meals around game times.

In everyday life, I have relied on sports lessons to motivate me, whether it’s pacing myself, going the distance, or kicking in the end. During tough times, my father’s encouraging words—similar to the ones he would share with the students he coached—have supported and lifted me. It was as simple as reminding me that strength comes from within.

There’s always a game on and it pains me to think I won’t be able to talk to him or sit down on the couch with him to watch—or talk on the phone, plan a visit, open my email to see another message that would surely bring a smile to my face. There is so much I already miss about my dear Dad. I can almost hear him say, “chin up, Stefanie Susan.” I will miss that love and support and his voice telling me to have fun. But I’m so grateful for the gifts he gave me.

Let Me Take Your Photo

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One of my favorite things to do is take photos of tourists, usually at the beach. I do this enough to call it a hobby. It is such a quick and easy way to make someone happy and I get a boost from it as well. I like knowing families will return home with a photo that shows them all, and that single travelers will have a photo that is better than a selfie. There’s usually a bit of small talk and I share local tips when prompted. They smile for the camera and I smile right back. I spotted this woman walking to the shore this morning with a huge smile on her face. When she held up her phone to the ocean, I stood up and offered to take her photo. She said she was visiting from the Midwest. I told her to make sure she dipped her feet in the water. Then I sat back down and watched her continue to the water, still smiling.

Goodnight, Dave

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Snapshots from Late Show with David Letterman

On the evening of David Letterman’s last late night appearance before retirement, I wish I could easily access the press clipping from my college newspaper of the behind-the-scenes story we published. I didn’t get to meet Dave during that taping and visit to the set—but I had my photo taken with Paul Shaffer backstage! Did we have anything profound to say at the time? Probably not.

But there is this: I grew up with Dave as my late night TV host and I’m so glad I did.

Like so many others, I tuned in to unwind after a long day. To listen and to laugh—and to discover musicians and bands, too. I was lucky to be in the audience a few times, once during a wild Howard Stern appearance. As a New Yorker, I loved when he chose to put the spotlight on his neighbors, from Meg in the office across the way to Rupert Jee in the deli down the block—and I cried during his first post-9/11 show. I was entertained by regular guests, from Bill Murray and Chris Elliott to Teri Garr and Regis Philbin. Then there were the things we came to count on: like the Top 10 lists and hearing Darlene Love sing “Baby, Please Come Home” year after year. He famously flirted with female guests like Drew Barrymore (who famously flashed him), and he let down his guard to connect with regulars like Warren Zevon (who provided us all with a profound final appearance).

It was okay when Dave was moody—even grouchy—because he was always sharp and he didn’t stand for BS and always found the humor in things. (Also: it was late at night.) He was obviously hilarious and insightful and he would also surprise you with his sheer silliness or his warmth and affection for guests. At the end of the day, it was the right time to welcome a mixed bag of emotions and tricks. What a great run.

Bowled Over: Well-Balanced Lunch Combinations

Lately, I’ve been getting as excited composing a well-balanced lunch bowl as I do dressing for a fun occasion. Staples include homemade hummus, brown rice, wild rice or quinoa, sauerkraut, sauteed greens, quick pickled red cabbage and carrots, roasted yams and other vegetables, and sometimes chicken or chicken sausage. Sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and Bragg’s Sea Kelp Delight seasoning. Yum.

The Best Lip Balms: Honey-Based Goodness

 

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I love using kitchen ingredients as personal care and beauty products—corn starch as dry shampoo, diluted apple cider vinegar as a facial toner or hair conditioner, coconut oil as a moisturizer or makeup remover, coffee combined with honey for a face scrub. In the kitchen, I use honey as a healthier alternative to sugar; in the bathroom, I use the coffee and honey scrub every week or two and regularly wash my face with it—just honey and warm water for a gentle cleansing.  As it’s antimicrobial, I also apply it to minor burns and cuts.

I stock up on honey from the local farmers’ market and favor it raw and unprocessed. Recently I tried a couple of lip balms offered by two honey vendors and—bingo!—they’re the best. Each is beeswax-based with healthy oils and honey and they’re super-moisturizing. Because I like a bit of color on my lips, I took some of the balm from the one in the pot and blended it with two of my favorite lip colors—Illusive lip2cheek by RMS Beauty and Strawberry Lipstick by Logona—for my own DIY tinted lip balms.

Fall Colors & Falling Leaves

Browns & Leaves: This Marc by Marc Jacobs cotton scarf (a recent thrift store find) will be my go-to wrap for fall. Pictured with it, a necklace that pairs a vintage cameo with a leaf charm. It might seem like there’s an endless summer in Los Angeles, but we have leaves that fall from trees. (Note the cat cooperating for a photo op with fallen leaves.)

Green and Gold: My high school colors were green and yellow, like the pictured zucchini from the Santa Monica farmers’ market. I’m reminded of cross-country races at Sunken Meadow Park during the peak of fall foliage season on Long Island. While autumn is less dramatic in Los Angeles, the difference can be felt during morning hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Capturing Sentiments: Photos Taken After September 11

I have always loved to take photos. I like to document experiences, places, and the faces of loved ones. On any given day, I will take aim at sunsets, seascapes, flowers, and the cat looking cute, but I especially love when a photo can tell a story or express a sentiment. These days, when my eyes linger on an image, I love that I can reach for my smartphone and capture a moment with ease.

I did not take any photos on September 11, 2001, or during the immediate days that followed. This was the pre-iPhone era and I used a camera with film to take photos during that time. After standing on the roof of my building and seeing that the towers had fallen, I packed a bag to temporarily flee my downtown apartment. I did not pack my camera. Even if I had, I’m not sure if I would have taken images of those first few days. Then, like so many others living in New York, I walked around feeling shocked, saddened, fearful, and uncertain.

But after several days, when I was back in my apartment, I started noticing signs of solidarity and patriotism everywhere I looked. I started to see American flags hanging where they had not been before. There were stars and stripes in shop windows, too—along with red, white, and blue fashions on mannequins. Walking the streets, I saw windows filled with patriotic displays that were thoughtfully and artfully arranged. My favorite is a miniature brass sculpture of a woman sewing (or repairing?) the American flag. With a smartphone, I certainly would have photographed more, but I’m glad I captured the images I did. They remind me of the hopeful days that followed.

MORE: Photos of NY Windows After September 11

Memories of Parks and Beaches: Celebrating the Wilderness Act

When I recall some of my treasured childhood memories, I picture myself either surrounded by trees and mountains or sand dunes and an ocean that stretches out as far as you can see. Parks and beaches were the best playgrounds and I was lucky to have them so close, as well as parents who exposed us to the great wonders of nature and taught us to appreciate and respect the wilderness.

It was a childhood packed with outdoor adventures. When I go back as far as I can remember, I’m at a park near our house feeding ducks and walking through the woods to climb a tree we named Irving. Our family’s summer vacations were camping trips to state and national parks, where we played in lakes, rivers, and oceans and hiked the Appalachian Trail. The rest of our summer days were enjoyed close to home at the beach, splashing in the white water then learning to jump waves and swim out past the breakers.

We went to the beach even during the colder months to walk the boardwalk nature trail. I didn’t know then that the area—the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness—was protected as part of the Wilderness Act, which was passed 50 years ago today. It was right down the road and also housed a nature center where park rangers would answer questions about the displays on the barrier island ecosystem. What a gift.

DIY Natural Bug Repellent Spray

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My love for the great outdoors is deep and eternal, but the threat of bug bites is a constant and nagging concern. I’ve tried a lot of the DEET-free insect repellents on the market and found many to be effective, including non-toxic and better-for-you bug sprays made by Badger and All Terrain. Most natural insect repellents use essential oils I already have, so I started experimenting with making my own by consulting different DIY homemade recipes found online—often bending over bottles in my kitchen laboratory while repeating “I’ll get those mosquitoes!” My preferred bug repellent spray is made with apple cider vinegar diluted with distilled water, a combination of essential oils, and vanilla extract. For each cup of the diluted apple cider vinegar, add approximately 50 drops of essential oils and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

DIY Bug Repellent Spray with Apple Cider Vinegar, Vanilla and Essential Oils

Fill a bottle with:

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup distilled water

15 drops citronella essential oil

15 drops peppermint essential oil

5 drops lavender essential oil

5 drops rosemary essential oil

5 drops rose geranium essential oil

5 drop grapefruit essential oil

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Tip: In addition to putting this natural bug repellent in a spray bottle, fill a travel-size perfume spray bottle to pack in your bag when you expect to be outdoors (especially during the evening, when mosquitoes like to feast).

Drink Up: Daily Tonics and Teas for Good Health

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Two recent conversations inspired this post: hearing about a family member who suffered from dehydration after a long day in the sun without adequate fluids, and a friend who has been bothered by a recurring cold since she started working in a new office. To both I say, “Drink up!” In addition to eating clean, staying hydrated is essential in the maintenance of good health. Below are a few good-for-you drinks I consume daily.

Hot Water with Lemon Juice
I love starting my day with this lemon juice tonic. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a glass or mug and fill with just-boiled, filtered water that has cooled for a few minutes. I remember my grandmother drinking hot lemon water (she would also squeeze a lemon slice right into her mouth without making a face!). It naturally provides a fresh-from-the-fruit dose of vitamin C and is said to kick-start the system, detoxify, and provide balance.

Apple Cider Vinegar Tonic
Stir one to two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a glass of water—cold or warm—for a boost of detoxifying vitamins, enzymes, and minerals. Be sure that the apple cider vinegar is organic and unrefined (I like Bragg’s) and shake the bottle before use. Optional: stir in honey and sprinkle in some cinnamon (the cinnamon never fully dissolves but adds some flavor and provides another antioxidant boost). I like to have this tonic mid-afternoon, right around the time my energy starts to wane. Instead of reaching for something sugary, I’ll drink this to feel revived.

Flavored Water
Sometimes I add cut fruit (fresh or frozen), sometimes cucumber slices, sometimes fresh mint or lemon verbena. It’s so easy and good—just drop into a pitcher or container of water and refrigerate. Also consider adding something to your reusable water bottle when you’re on-the-go and add frozen fruit to your water bottle instead of ice cubes on hot days. I also like adding a splash of chilled hibiscus or chamomile tea (see below).

Hibiscus Tea
Hibiscus tea is an infusion easily made with dried hibiscus petals and hot water. I love the tart flavor and drink it straight-up, combined with green tea, or chilled and sweetened (agua de fresca). It contains vitamin C and minerals and studies suggest it could help lower blood pressure and ease digestive woes. To easily enjoy it all week long, I make a batch and keep it chilled in the refrigerator. It’s also good for topping off a hot cup of tea or adding a boost of flavor to water or regular iced tea.

Green Tea
Green tea, long known to be an antioxidant, is my go-to for an afternoon cup of tea. When it’s cool out or I’m working in an air-conditioned office, I reuse the tea bag and refill my mug with hot water all afternoon—this keeps me warm and limits my caffeine intake. Extra boosts to add: hibiscus tea or a few dried hibiscus petals; lemon juice or a lemon slice; grated ginger. Or, stir with a cinnamon stick.

Chamomile Tea with Apple Cider Vinegar
Here’s my bedtime drink: half a cup of chilled camomile tea with a splash of apple cider vinegar. Chamomile is known for its calming effect and I heard that consuming apple cider vinegar helps ensure restful sleep, so I’ve combined them. I make several cups of chamomile tea in advance and keep it chilled in the refrigerator.

Buried in the Sand: Beach Glass and Clams

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It doesn’t feel like summer unless I have the chance to stroll along the shore in search of beach glass. Where I grew up on Long Island, it’s easily found and I have been a collector of sea glass for as long as I can remember. I think of it as treasure-hunting and usually stop only when my eyes tire and my back begins to ache from bending—or if the sun is beating down and I feel compelled to jump right into the ocean. In another life, I might have been a gold-digger. During a recent family visit, I picked up 20 pieces on a beach walk with my parents.

Another fond childhood memory I have of searching along the shore is for clams. Our parents would send us — me, my brother and cousins — to go clamming in the sand and we would fill our buckets with them, then take them home to be served. I remember steamed clams and pasta with clam sauce, but my favorite was baked clams. The bread crumb mixture was similar to the one we used for stuffed artichokes — with olive oil, garlic, fresh parsley, and parmesan cheese — but we added oregano and lemon to the mix for baked calms. For the kids who weren’t fond of the slimy clams, Uncle Mike would chop them into small pieces to blend with the bread crumbs before baking. After a long day at the beach that made me feel nostalgic for childhood beach days, we picked up clams and I prepared them for dinner. Just as good as I remember.

Beach Rules: Slow Down

Sometimes it’s good to find a reminder to slow down. Barefoot it and go real slow. No wi-fi? What a blessing. Walk to the beach, walk to town for ice cream, walk without a destination. Not fast, but slow.

Like A Girl: What Does It Mean?

Cross-posted on Surf Like a Girl

I just saw this fantastic ad by Always on the meaning of doing things “like a girl.” You can only say so much in a three-minute video, but it touches on sexist stereotypes and the socialization of kids—and reminds us that we all start out fierce and full of power. As a grown-up girl, I am proud to say I do everything “like a girl” and wouldn’t want to do it any other way. (Only wish they would have added “surf like a girl” to their list of examples!) Watch.

Beach Bag: Ready for Summer Days

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Drying off after a swim this weekend, I took a photo while reclined on the beach blanket and got more of my beach bag in the shot than intended. Then I noticed how it showed all the essentials for a beach day: floppy hat to provide good coverage from the sun; polarized sunglasses to shield eyes and fight glare; a book and a magazine; a non-plastic water bottle (this Lifefactory bottle is glass with a protective silicone cover); a cotton scarf/sarong for additional coverage. My beach blanket of choice? A vintage sheet found in a thrift store (this one has a bold floral print by Vera). Not pictured: non-toxic sunscreen and lip balm (at the bottom of the bag), a towel, and snacks (roasted nuts and fruit).

Aside: Note the sweet couple taking a stroll down the beach.

Covering Up for Sun Protection: Safe Sunscreen Picks

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Cross-posted on Surf Like a Girl

There’s so much to love about being in the great outdoors—paddling out for a surf or swimming in the ocean, relaxing on a sandy beach, hiking in a park or strolling along the shore, eating al fresco, reading a book in the front yard. For all of these activities, the warmth and light from the sun can seem magical.

So here’s the “but.” The sun can warm you, give you light, and provide good-for-you vitamin D, but too much exposure can be damaging and cause skin cancer.

Happily, you can still enjoy the sun while protecting yourself with non-toxic products that block the damaging rays. The best way to start is by consulting the Environmental Working Group’s guide to safe sunscreens, which includes recommendations for safe products that contain zinc oxide and other better-for-you ingredients. My safe sunscreen favorites:

Face: The Organic Wear line from Physicians Formula makes a lightweight tinted moisturizer with SPF 15. For more coverage, I use the Supergoop! CC Cream with SPF 35 or Jane Iredale’s PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation with SPF 20. Tip: after applying product to your face, wipe excess on the tops of your hands.

Lips: Badger has a lip balm stick with SPF 15 that I use alone or blended with a lip color product. My favorite tinted lip balms with SPF: Alba Botanica’s Terratints with SPF 15 and the All Good Lips line with SPF 18 from Elemental Herbs.

Body: I like sunscreens from Badger, California Baby, and Alba Botanica’s Very Emollient sunscreen line, which is especially gentle and effective.

For protection that doesn’t come in a bottle, compact, or tube, you can count on hats, sunglasses, and clothing—sarongs and thin cotton tunics are great for covering up at the beach, even when it’s hot.