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. 

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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 visits to California my parents have taken since they retired, we have watched Sunday football games together at my home and I have 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.

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

Old-Fashioned Watches: Low-Tech and Loving It

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Even though it was expected and should not seem surprising, I find it amusing that Apple is releasing a watch product when so many people now check the time by lighting up their smartphone screens.

I love wearing a watch and I have several to choose from when I get dressed each day. It’s true that none of the watches in my collection will count how many steps I’ve taken, let me view cute cat photos, or allow me to update social media accounts. But I wear my watches like jewelry and, as stylish and sleek as the Apple watch appears to be, it looks like an electronic device on a wristband. I’m not going to say I will never get one—through the years, I regret saying I would never wear a lot of things, like Birkenstocks or white after Labor Day—but I’m already feeling nostalgic for the good old-fashioned, time-telling watch.

I choose a watch like I do my earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings—and my clothing, other accessories, and handbags (bags—don’t get me started on handbags!). Like so many others, I express myself with my style choices and I love clothing and accessories that have been selected with care. Today I’m wearing my Wenger Swiss Army men’s watch, which is a memento from one of my first jobs. After five years with the company, I was told I could choose a work anniversary gift from a catalog that was filled with crystal vases, landscape paintings, and other dust-collecting items that would have ended up being donated to a thrift shop. Wisely, I chose the watch. It tells time reliably and has a date function (although it’s off by 10 days, give or take, since I last changed the battery). It’s classic.

On any other given day, I might wear the Baume & Mercier watch that cost a whole paycheck when I bought it at a shop on Fifth Avenue in New York several years ago. I remember nervously handing over my credit card—how could I spend this much money on a watch?— but I have never regretted the purchase. Like any beautiful and well-made accessory, I instantly feel pulled together when I’m wearing it. I love to look down to see the numbers around the dial, the hands that move with precision, and the weight of it on my wrist.

For special occasions or when I’m feeling fancy, I wear one my vintage Bulova watches; one was passed down from my grandmother and the other was one of my mother’s Sweet 16 birthday gifts. Both are dainty and make me feel lady-like and ready to take a swirl around the dance floor. A favorite Swatch from my teen years shows the inner workings of the watch on its face and usually sparks nostalgic conversations about the ’80s whenever I wear it.

I no longer have all the watches I’ve owned, nor do I feel the collection is actually complete. (I went through a phase in my twenties of wearing ring watches I purchased from flea markets and street vendors—and wouldn’t that be a fun new way to add to the collection?) The watches I have now are still worn and used, with the exception of the wind-up Snoopy watch I got as a gift from my parents after receiving my Holy Communion. I no longer wear it, but I like seeing it among the timepieces. It started ticking when I wound it up earlier and Snoopy’s front paws can still move around, all these years later.

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.