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.

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.

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.