Monday, December 24, 2012

Love for Christmas: A Gift Idea for the Rich at Heart

 The following story was published in my college newspaper when I was a senior. It was submitted (without my knowledge) by my journalism professor to a contest sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. Surprise of surprises, it won first prize in the feature division. Two prizes really: a handsome letter opener (long gone, lost in a move probably) and $50 (even longer gone). The sentiments seem timeless to me, so decades later I’m posting it in an edited version. Happy holidays, everyone! Keep the spirit.

I remember the Christmas I grew up. I was eight years old, but I think I realized even then that I was a wiser child on Christmas night than I had been on Christmas eve.
My father, an apron manufacturer, had discovered that people weren’t buying many aprons and that his business was failing. That year, my parents pawned my mother’s engagement ring to pay the bills, and later they quarreled bitterly over my father’s refusal to take his wife’s wedding band to satisfy another persistent collector.

I heard that argument from my bed, a battle conducted in fierce whispers to ensure my innocence, although they thought I was asleep. I saw their shadows as I listened, sensing, in a child’s way, more than I knew. Finally, when I heard the first bubble of a sob break from my mother’s throat, I realized I had invaded sacred adult territory and buried my head under my pillow in retreat. My father won that skirmish and my mother kept her wedding band, the symbol of a bond that really needed no symbols. They clung to each other that year of extremes and together they protected their daughter from the knowledge that we had become very poor.
Right before the dancing lessons stopped
Poverty was a new and shocking experience for our family. We lived in a building with a doorman, had a car in Brooklyn where not everyone owned one, employed a cleaning lady once a week. And there was money for dancing lessons for me. By the time I turned eight , though, luxuries had been eliminated and even the basics were slashed to appease the appetite of a factory on its way down.

Until then, holidays had been sacred. Lots of presents, chocolate coins at Hanukkah, stockings filled with candy at Christmas. In those good years, I had a favorite gift, one I had received on my fifth Christmas, a baby doll that looked so much like an infant in its white lace-trimmed gown that it had made me gasp at first sight. As an older toy, it disappeared into a back closet, an arm missing, its gown ripped and soiled. Soon it was forgotten.
I expected gifts that bad year, I suppose, as children expect the inevitable happinesses. I didn’t know that my parents had spent hours wondering how they were going to produce anything resembling a present on Christmas morning. I was also unaware of the powers of a mother and father determined not to disappoint their child, and the ingenuity bred of poverty.

I can’t remember that particular Christmas dawn as any different from the previous years. It was probably cold and half-dark outside, but I do remember the candy-stuffed stocking hanging from the mantel of the electric fireplace and, on the hearth, one box wrapped in colored paper. The little girl who stood gazing at that package I recall now with a strange clarity. She was dressed in a pink flannel nightgown with pale green rosettes and her hair hung past her shoulders in curls that bounced when she tossed her head as she often did when she didn’t get her way. She was an only child, slightly selfish and a bit wild, but that day she was subdued, unusually quiet for Christmas morning. It was almost as if the sight of the lone present had inspired a precocious caution and she took a long time unwrapping it. Her parents, my parents, stood watching . And when I had dug through the paper and opened the box, I hope they weren’t, but I suspect they were a little afraid.
I lifted out the grimacing infant doll I had received new three Christmases before. Her arm was sewn back in place, her face was freshly washed, new eyes and a mouth had been painted on, and she wore a chintz nightgown made from a remnant of an apron nobody would buy. So much work and invention had gone into that present and, as young as I was, I realized what I had received. If its cost in dollars and cents had been minimal, it showed a huge expense of love, and I have never forgotten it.

Later, when I was older and given to adolescent reflection, I believed that gift to be a symbol of renewal. But now that I am still older and reverting to a simpler way of thinking, I appreciate it as a gesture of the deepest love and the most profound expression of giving. And that after all, is the true spirit of Christmas.

And now for a less exalted gift: winner of the random drawing announced in my last post is Jennifer Miller. Email me at, Jennifer, and I’ll send off an inscribed copy of my novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet). I look forward to more comments from you and from all.
Toby Devens

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"We Got Your Back"~ Time Travelers Hit New York City

I’ll take Manhattan, well, any time, but last week when I visited, it flaunted its fabulous holiday best. Fifth Avenue bustled with shoppers, department store windows were dressed to dazzle, street vendors did a brisk business in scarves and knit caps. It hadn’t been a happy autumn in New York, but the power was back on, the streets were clean and dry, and everyone–cab drivers chatting, doormen smiling–was in the holiday spirit.

 Order black-and-whites at Zabar's
Or bake your own: search
New Yorkers used to have a reputation for being slow to warm up and fast to get in your face. An unfair rep, which the world didn’t amend until 9/11 and then Sandy proved it absolutely wrong. New Yorkers are as caring as anyone on the planet. Which brings me to a case in point.
We'd named ourselves The Time Travelers, a group of ten friends, male and female, from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, classmates scattered by time and circumstance then rediscovered at high school reunions or on Facebook. Last May, we'd gathered in the leafy shadows of Prospect Park to kick off two days of memories, laughter and noshing (akin to snacking but with more gusto and usually mustard). At some time during that weekend, we learned that one of us was waging war with a nasty, aggressive cancer. We told her, as we’d told each other in the school yard years before, “We got your back, kiddo.”
Over the following months, we heard about her extensive surgery and grueling rounds of chemo which she handled with amazing grace. Radiation was next. We’d kept in touch by phone and email but now, dammit, we weren’t going to let her go through more of this without us there to hold her hand, hug her gently, help her deal.

Last week, with her radiation about to begin, Time Travelers arrived from four different states by train bus and plane. One of us carried a special gift: a photo taken of our group at the May reunion surrounded by a paper mat that had made its way around the country by post, picking up autographs at each stop. And hours before our friend was scheduled to head up to radiation oncology, a contingent of us sat with her and her husband in the cafeteria at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to witness her unwrap the gift. Her beautiful smile bloomed as she read our notes of hope and friendship. Our eyes filled. We nibbled New York’s famous black-and-white cookies as we cheered her on. And when we kissed goodbye and promised to stay in touch, we meant it. If New Yorkers say, “We got your back, kiddo,” you can lay money on it—they got your back.
On my way to Penn Station for the trip home, I was greeted by a young man who wouldn’t let me walk past his stand of knit hats and chenille gloves. “Hey, for that smile, lady, I take two dollars off.” How could I pass up such a bargain? I bought a pair of gloves, a little gift for myself for the holidays. But the friends that gathered for a Time Traveler in trouble, and even more, what she gave back to us—an example of bravery under fire, determination and, on most days, serene optimism—now that’s a gift the size of a New Yorker’s heart.

Toby Devens
Contest Alert!  Share your story of a gift that changed your life or touched your heart and you could win an inscribed copy of my novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet).


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Blue Star Mothers: When Your Child is at War

Cousin Cecil, at a Battle of the Bulge Reunion
It was decades after World War II that I finally asked my great-aunt Ruth about the stickers affixed to her apartment door.  By then, the two ovals, white with a red border, were  tattered at the edges, but the blue star in their center looked new. I figured she still dusted the decals occasionally.

 “They’re from the War,” she told me. World War II, I should have known—as if Korea hadn’t occurred and the conflict in Viet Nam wasn’t raging. “I was a Blue Star Mother.”
She explained to me that women with sons in the military could proudly display a blue star on their windows and doors. And there were pins to wear, as well. Gold stars were reserved for grieving parents who had lost a child in the war. “You never wanted to be a gold star mother.“ She shuddered.

Her older son Walter, a Marine, had been in the bloody water off the coast of Normandy and landed in France on D-Day. Amazingly, he was also present at the landing in Iwo Jima. His younger brother, Irwin, had served bravely in Italy.  At the time of the war, my great-aunt was in midlife... and widowed. She had loving family nearby and good friends for support. Bottom line, though, she shouldered her burden by herself.
Another cousin, Cecil, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and spent time in a German prison camp. Now in his eighties, he's active in groups that include buddies from the war and honor those currently in harm’s way. He doesn’t talk much about what he personally endured.  Most of the former servicemen in my family don’t revisit that time, even with those closest to them. But the wives of some report nightmares persist, even 60 years later. And Walter’s daughter says it was only shortly before his death that he started to “talk of those days and refer to the other men.”

Our family escaped the Korean conflict personally unscathed. But Viet Nam hit us hard. One cousin was injured and lost hearing as a result. A second, who came home safely, developed a rare, lethal form of cancer not long after. Oncologists attributed it to exposure to Agent Orange that saturated his area of operation. He died in his early thirties, leaving a young son behind.
Still, our young men and women go to war. Still, mothers and fathers—at midlife or beyond, when the burdens of parenting should be lifting—are living with the most visceral fear: that of a parent for a child in danger. And after the homecomings, if a son or daughter is dealing with physical, mental or emotional fallout from combat, those moms and dads stand with wives, husbands and children to help in the mending process.

So this week, as we honor those who serve our country in the military, let us also remember the spouses who keep families intact back home and the parents who wait, pray and help pick up the pieces afterwards. Blue stars go out to all of you.
Toby Devens

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mentoring~Pay It Forward

A while back, I received an email from a young woman writer. I’d never met Tammy, although her parents and I were acquainted. In her note, Tammy mentioned that she’d finished her first novel. “My mom told me that you’ve been published...and I was wondering if you have any advice you’d like to share?” Of course.

Tammy sent excerpts of her book, unique and riveting. She was talented. Back and forth, we emailed about editing, publishers and agents. I encouraged her in the face of the inevitable rejections, reminded her of the current tumultuous state of the publishing industry and, when she secured an agent, cyber celebrated with her.
Not long after, I received the email I’d been hoping for. Tammy announced, “My book sold!—for many writers, the three happiest words in the English language. (The most jaded among us say, even happier than “I love you.”)

Reading Tammy’s thank you, I thought, Hurray! another writer launched. Not by me certainly, but with a little nudge from me. I’ve been nudging quite a bit over the last decade. The way I see it, mentoring upcoming talent is not only a pleasure and a privilege, it’s a responsibility. Years ago, I got nudged myself and I’m determined to translate my gratitude into something useful.
When I was in college, three professors took a special interest in me. Harry Lee, a novelist of grand repute in the 1950’s, no longer writing by the time I sat breathlessly absorbing his knowledge of the craft; Shirley Yarnall, my creative writing teacher with two novels and an off-Broadway play under her belt; and Jeanne Roberts, a world renowned Shakespeare scholar who guided the freshman literary magazine. These generous souls didn’t confine their teaching to the classroom. Lee gathered students around him at the local pub where he talked about writing over beer and Cokes. Shirley had English majors sitting at her feet in her living room as she discussed how they could improve their work. In her eighties, Jeanne showed up at one of my book signings so I was able to tell her tearfully how grateful I was for her always challenging me to meet her high standards. Throughout my career, others—mostly in midlife and beyond—mentored me. And now I figure it’s my turn. Many of my friends think the same way.

Nancy Baggett (right) recently held a launch party for her marvelous new book, Simply Sensational Cookies.Well, not just for her book. She made sure to share the spotlight with Jeanne Sauvage and Jeanne’s debut book, Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays. The women met online when Jeanne adapted one of Nancy’s recipes to a gluten-free version. They met in person at a meeting for culinary professionals and stayed in touch. Later, Jeanne asked Nancy to write the forward for her book. Nancy says, “After testing several recipes, which I thought were fabulous, I agreed.”At the launch party, the beaming first-time author (left) thanked Nancy for her contribution and her friendship. For more on Nancy's book and some great dessert recipes, go to

Richard, a physician, teaches radiology to young doctors heading into his specialty. “I love these kids. Yes, they’re adult men and women, but they’re kids to me—like family. I’ve had a wonderful career. Now it’s payback time.” He not only instructs his students in the medical discipline, he takes an interest in their lives and their futures as he helps propel them toward success.

Alan coaches math to middle schoolers. He gets paid a pittance in dollars for his work. But the rewards are inestimable, he tells me, glowing at the high marks his students receive after he’s gotten them up to, then past, grade.
Toba volunteers to work one-on-one with underachieving high school students—some of them potential drop-outs—encouraging and helping them find within themselves the ability to succeed academically.

In my version of the aphorism, there’s a time to sow, a time to reap, and a time to mentor. So play it forward. Pay it forward. Try mentoring if you want to leave the world a better place than you found it. And there’s a splendid personal bonus attached: as you show newbies the way, you renew your joy in the work you’ve always loved.
Toby Devens

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


My first book, Mercy, Lord! My Husband’s in the Kitchen* was written at the height of the woman’s movement as is evident from its subtitle
*And Other Equal Opportunity Conversations with God. Yet you’ll see in the excerpted poem below that the narrator is grateful to the Lord, a specifically masculine term for the Almighty which was standard language then. In the text of many newer prayer books, such gender-specific terms have been replaced with neutral ones: God or Eternal One for Lord, Sovereign for King.

Times have certainly changed. The toddler mentioned in “October” is a woman now with her own daughter, a little girl who will grow up with far more opportunities than were open to her grandmother or even to her mom. I cheer for that change, even as I feel nostalgia for some of what once was.
Midlife and, for me, autumn are times for reflection. “October” evokes a young family on a crisp fall day set in a moment long past, but —in the turning of the leaves, the slant of burnished sunlight, the yielding but unending cycle of seasons— also something miraculously eternal.   

Thank You for yesterday, Lord.

For the crisp October morning with air so still it left leaves undisturbed on the trees and, consequently, for the elegant angle of rake against carport, my favorite fall composition.
Thank You for breakfast eggs that didn’t split their yolks before reaching my husband’s plate, for apple cider that surprised the palate and inspired meditation on the wondrous ways You work through nature, and for the State Energy Commission that refused a nine percent rate hike to the gas and electric company. We may just be able to heat this barn of a kitchen through winter without sacrificing our daughter’s college education.

Thank You for that child’s two-hour nap as the shadows lengthened, for my own hour of sleep and the splendid way I was awaked. For my husband’s surge of autumn energy which moved him to clean closets, repair faucets, and brew vegetable soup among other excellent activities.
Thank You for the cat’s nuzzling as the wind stirred toward evening and for her gift which, though I would not have chosen it for myself preferring roses laid at my feet to supine small animals of indeterminate origin, was, nonetheless, well meant and offered lovingly.

Thank You for yesterday, Lord.
For all the glorious moments, and for the final toddler tantrum before bedtime because letting go of beauty is harder than leaving disappointment behind. Thank You for the flaw in this otherwise perfect day which reminds me that perfection is illusion and happiness condition, swift as season’s shifting but as sure in its repeating.

Toby Devens

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Taking Back the Power (Steering): My Driving Phobia II

Some time ago, I wrote that I’d finally decided to deal with my highway driving phobia, a post that prompted comments not only on the blog, but generated a flurry of correspondence to its email address:

Speaking to National Council of Jewish Women
I've spoken to a number of groups lately about my books and blog, and this topic, more than any other I mention, evokes an intense reaction. Invariably a hum of sympathy, along with perhaps recognition and self-identification, buzzes through the audience. And later, fellow sufferers approach to clasp my hands and tell me their own harrowing stories.

Because my father used to remind me that “Knowledge is power,” I decided to explore the subject further, even as I worked through the problem on wheels. And here’s what I discovered.

There are two versions of fear involved in every phobia: 1) a fear of the activity, circumstances or object and 2) a fear of the panic attack associated with it. Now, a panic attack is not your normal garden variety anxiety. A medical text’s list of possible symptoms includes: shaking, sweating, nausea, blurred vision, dry mouth, chilled extremities, and the belief that you are either going crazy or about to die. Scary stuff. So scary that if something sets off a panic attack at the moment you’re driving at high speeds, the natural response is to avoid repeating that action. From then on, you’re not only fearing and avoiding highway driving, you’re taking measures to duck the panic attack associated with it. Or to paraphrase FDR, “The major thing a phobic has to fear is fear itself.”
But what triggered my first panic attack on the beltway? After all, I’d been driving it for years without a problem. Well, maybe it was my accident at Exit 20, the one that medics were afraid broke my neck (it turned out to be only a bad bruise, thank heaven). You’ve probably heard another version of this simple cause and effect response: a child bitten by a dog may be frightened of even the sweetest, most docile pups forever after.

Not every trigger is that specific, however. If Grandma was spooked by escalators and Uncle Joe was terrified of spiders, you may have inherited a predisposition to panic attacks. In many cases, this biochemical landmine remains dormant for your entire life. In others, it explodes. Stress of any kind—divorce, death of a spouse, job loss, financial problems; even good stress like planning a wedding or welcoming a new baby—can set it off. Where you are or what you’re doing at that moment may become associated with that unrelated, stress-induced panic attack and presto! you’ve got yourself a first class phobia.
As you avoid those awful feelings by taking back roads at ambling speed, your world shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until you—and only you, not your spouse or your kids or your friends—decide it’s time to take back your power. “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

The treatment for phobias is called “counter conditioning” because you’re reversing what you have conditioned yourself to believe. “Beltways are dangerous, they can kill you if you make a mistake, and they cause panic attacks which are worse than death” was my self-taught lesson. So every week, an experienced (and courageous) therapist accompanies me as I take steps toward my goal of driving wherever at whatever is the legal speed limit. We started with baby steps, a few miles down a four-lane highway, and repeated that until it felt comfortable. And now, after months of practice under increasingly challenging circumstances, while Dr. Calm sits with perfect confidence beside me, I’m zooming down the beltway at 55. True, not yet entirely on my own. And, yes, with an occasional surge of fear. But I’m on my way. At last.
We welcome your comments about how you deal with your fears. And they don’t have to be full-fledged phobias...even small fears take courage to face and overcome.
Toby Devens 

Monday, October 1, 2012

No More Pets for Me. Sigh.

I have no pets currently residing in my house. And now I'm going to declare something that probably will offend you. I say this without shame. Alright, maybe with a little shame because it sounds heartless and selfish and there are so many shelter animals needing homes, but at midlife (this is not a decision made lightly) I don't want to live with a pet and probably never will again.

Please understand--I love animals. Well, not rats or those huge scary water bugs that skitter across floors in tropical hotels. I adore, from drive-by distance, the lambs that gambol on a farm near my home and the horses that roam the pasture down the road. Most of all, I love dogs and cats.
No only child wanted a dog more than I did. I lived in a New York City apartment building where pets were allowed but most families didn't have them. Space was limited. In some cases, funds were short. It was an era when mothers had just begun to work outside the home and parents' time and attention were at a premium. I remember there being only one dog in our building--Watson, a Cocker Spaniel who lived with an unmarried physician.

I pled for a dog. My father had grown up with a Chow Chow named Ming; my mom with Ginger, a Fox Terrier. So they were sympathetic...but unyielding. I had to settle for the typical Brooklyn apartment default pet, a turtle purchased at a Ringling Brothers Circus souvenir concession. Myrtle sported a clown decal on her shell and probably salmonella beneath it. When she died, there was a succession of goldfish including Caesar, Cleopatra, and Nero I, II and II. My mother used a kitchen strainer to scoop the final Nero from his floating funeral at the top of the fishbowl. My father said a prayer over the tiny tarnished body nestled in a square of toilet paper. Then we gave Nero III a burial at sea. Flush!
I've had two cats in my immediate world. First, Tabu who slipped through an open brownstone window to adopt my husband and me. Tabu combined a gentle soul with the wary alertness of a vagrant who'd seen action on city streets. We had a decade with her and after she died we adopted Carrie, formerly a mouser on a farm in rural Maryland. My son Gary promptly named her "Psycho Cat" for the way she arched her back, electrified her coat and hissed menacingly each time he reached to pet her. My daughter Amanda, in pre-school, named Carrie for her best friend. Carrie seemed kind of a kitty version of me. Red highlights glinted her fur. Her bones were tiny. She never weighed more than 4 1/2 pounds. And her personality was an unpredictable amalgam of purring warmth and feisty, spitting spirit. Amanda was in graduate school when Carrie, tamed by a gentling dementia, died at age 24. She was the oldest cat our vet had ever treated. Post mortem, the medical staff pressed her paw into plaster to make a remembrance paperweight that I keep near my laptop where I spend a lot of time.

So I'm not without a history of close personal relationships with animals. But now I'm convinced my pet-in-residence days have passed. Not only because their inevitable loss is another reason to grieve, but because their presence is inconvenient. And before you convict me of incredible self-absorption, I mean inconvenient for them as well. Also unfair. My kids are grown and out of the house. I miss them but cherish my freedom. I come home late some nights. I'm away many hours some days. Dogs need romping, Frisbee-throwing time. Cats, despite their reputation for independence, are made quietly content by human companionship. And I've lived with litter boxes in guest bathrooms long enough. Bonus: now I can plan more travel. I know folks who kennel their animals and take off for Africa for a three-week safari. I repeat: Unfair! 

I've been told by a physician friend that the presence of a pet lowers human blood pressure, reduces stress and adds to longevity. I've noticed, however, that he doesn't share his premises with a pet for all those therapeutic benefits. Truth is, I'm not without pet company. I'm close to a number of dogs. Lefty is elegant and exuberant in turn, a real charmer. I love him and live with him during vacations spent with his parents. My pal Allan Zendell chronicled his connection with Haley, a fabulous Golden Retriever, in his book A Boy and His Dog--An Unfinished Love Story. Two adorable Havanese pups make visits with Cousin Erica even more fun. My daughter's family includes Chaucer and Avery, a pair of aging toms. And Louie, an affectionate tabby, rules my son and daughter-in-law's house. But when time spent with these wonderful creatures is over, I go home to a pet-hair free, dander free (and one set of grandkids is allergic), muddy-paw-print free, slobber and bark free life.

I know you're going to skewer me for this post. In spite of which, I welcome your responses. Really. Please be aware however that all threatening comments will immediately be forwarded to the FBI-- copy to the ASPCA (sigh).

Toby Devens

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Dating Pool: Part Three ~ A Success Story

Medical Alert:  There are reports of an illness circulating called "dating site fatigue." It's especially toxic in single women forty-five and over. Symptoms: ennui, mild depression, low grade romantic fever, and a reflex spasm in the typing fingers that sends nasty responses to every man on every site who calls himself "Captain," or "Sailor Boy" or expresses a need for a "first mate." Why are so many boat-crazed men trawling for women online anyway? No matter, if you've absolutely had it with too many "hot4U"s who are not right 4U and despair of drowning in the dating pool, have I got a cure for you! Here's a heartwarming success story from our guest blogger who hung in there and made it work in spite of the odds, the circumstances and, mostly, in spite of herself.

Hello, everyone! 

I'm "Deb," the woman Toby mentioned  in a previous post who was swimming in the really deep end of the dating pool thirteen years ago. That's when led me to my soulmate--and  husband.  Yes, potential partners really are "out there."

Dating for over a decade after my divorce, I'd tried everything (or so I thought): church, alumni groups, personal ads (remember them?), blind dates, intros by friends, volunteer work, and flirtatious encounters in the light bulb aisle at Home Depot (but no light bulbs came on; not even any sparks).

I'd pretty much accepted that if it happened, it would happen, and if it didn't, it wouldn't, and I'd be just fine either way.  What other choice did I have?  When I'd tell the men I dated that my elderly father lived with me and we were a package deal--take us or leave us, that my teenagers were in the middle of adolescent angst and associated  crises, and that my dog  was having extensive, expensive dental issues("You mean the German Shepherd that wouldn't let me in your house?"--YES, that one)my dates often left visible skid marks taking off!  Like they didn't have any "challenges?"   Sure.
Then, one day, while reading a weekly newspaper published by my faith tradition, I saw this: "Christians seeking other"   What the heck, I thought.  Although the site delivered what it promised, the men were all over the country (together with some not yet "over” their marriages), and my budget simply didn't allow for a "quick bite to eat" with an interesting orthodontist in Ohio.  BUT... on that site, other links popped up.  I clicked on, and it was really at the deep end of the pool in 1999--not mainstream at all.  I jumped in, and it changed my life.

Fearing my friends and family would think I'd lost my mind, I told nobody of my online adventure. I could hardly believe it myself.  I screened many postings, and answered only five.  Out of those five, one stood out, and was the only one I met.   He not only stood out, but a year later stood with me at the altar. But, as he tells it, it almost didn't happen.
After three months of emailing, sending romantic cards, and pen-palling, he asked a really crazy question: "Do you think we could talk on the phone sometime, or maybe even meet?"  OMG, I thought, the moment of truth!   Could I really do this? I wasn't so sure.  Why ruin a perfectly fine online romance?

He was patient, however, and assured me that (in addition to the many things that we seemed to have in common) he had a high level security clearance, and that if we met in a public place like a restaurant, I could protect myself by having a cell phone handy, a knife and fork for defense, and I could disguise myself before entering to "check him out."  If I didn't like what I saw, or simply changed my mind, I could leave and he'd  understand completely.  He did make me laugh (very important), but was this man for REAL???
Yes, he was. Real and wonderful.
Given the lives we were leading at the time, there would have been NO way we would have met without either of us taking that leap of faith into the "deep end of the dating pool," and trusting our online "Yente." 

OK, so it wasn't reminiscent of "Fiddler on the Roof," but it worked.  He is a "good man."  "A fine man."  A man I never thought I'd meet let alone marry, but did.  I am blessed.
Matchmaker, matchmaker made me an electronic match.

Try risking that dive into the deep end.  Life is short, and love is grand.

Thanks, Deb. Readers, we'd love to hear your stories of dating adventures, misadventures or strategies for making the most of dating sites.  Just post a comment or send an email to  We derive knowledge (and courage) from experience--our own and what we learn from someone else's life lessons. So let's share our strengths!
Toby Devens

Monday, September 10, 2012

Girls Gone Wild on the Beach ~ In Slenderizing Swimsuits

Toby and Toba On the Beach
For girls (better yet, young women), going wild on the beach means sand, sun, surf, spirits and... men. For those of us past our string bikini prime, the recipe for a wild vacation is more like sand, sunscreen, self-indulgence, and... no men. Oh, there's nothing wrong with the hairy gender. It's one of my two favorites. But honestly, aside from their obvious talents--such as screwing an umbrella into the sand hard and deep enough so it doesn't topple over in a strong wind, men are as superfluous on a summer holiday as earmuffs. Okay, not entirely true. But a women-only vacation is a treat occasionally.

So last week, I--officially single--and my friend Toba (yes I know it's matchy-matchy, Toby and Toba) whose first-rate husband was visiting grandkids cross country,  took off for the Delaware/Maryland shore. For this last gasp of summer vacation, our baggage included an iPad, Kindle, laptops, more shoes than clothes ...but no neon green noodles and floaties for kids now grown, and a not a single bottle of aftershave. Refreshing.

We didn't stop at the fashion outlets clustered along the route. We may buy stylish, but we no longer buy trendy, so what we've got lasts. We picked up fresh corn and tomatoes at the Little Red Wagon farm store on the approach to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a span whose height and leap-into-the-abyss design is a magnet for bridge phobia. Through clenched teeth, we sang our way across: "Everybody's gone surfin', surfin' U.S.A."

Arriving mid-morning, we hustled into swimsuits. No men. So no fear of judgment by those who'd seen us in bikinis in our twenties or could compare us to decades of Playboy centerfolds. Neither of us asked, "Does my ass look good?" I did wear a miracle suit constructed with the genius of Leonardo. Its powerful fabric and brilliant architecture flatten the tummy and somehow iron muffin tops sleek. Toba wore a tank twosome that allows women not to have to peel an entire clingy one-piece from a moist, sandy body when nature calls. Whoever came up with that cleverness deserves to share the Nobel Prize with the inventor of Spandex.

On the beach, we didn't discuss the coming election, the state of the union, the prospects of the Redskins, or the stock market. We could have. We know that kind of stuff. But unlike folks of the XY variety, we XXs can leave the world behind while gazing at a horizon of sky caressing sea. Nor did we ogle men in Speedos which we both think are ridiculous to the point of giggles.

That first night, dinner was just sweet corn and luscious Maryland tomatoes. For dessert, we made tracks to Dumser's, a local ice cream stand and ordered kiddy cones based on Toba's brilliant logic that two kiddy cones equal one small cone which allowed us to double up our daily quotient of ice cream.

Thus began our almost week away. Daytime, I researched my next book by scouting beach houses and shops in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth--possible settings. I interviewed locals for background. Toba did her own work with diligent focus. We spent a few morning hours on the beach and sunsets sipping wine on the balcony above it. Dinner was always just a haphazard prelude to Dumser's soft-serve. Or gelato on the boardwalk. Or both. Toba spoke multiple times to her husband whom she missed, but not overmuch. I got a message from someone who missed me. He was looking forward to my returning home. Home? Looking forward? Not overmuch. We would be there all too soon.

On the way back, with our stress level dialed down to zero, the Bay Bridge seemed less ominous. Once over, we stopped at a family-run store where the ice cream was made from milk produced by cows grazing on the dairy farm behind us. The young woman behind the counter convinced us to order the small size instead of kiddy cones. "I can make them with two flavors," she tempted. They came out with double scoops of bittersweet chocolate and cappuccino chip. She smiled at our guilty delight, a fresh faced beauty, heading back to college and into the world with options and opportunities spread before her like endless grains of sand on beach.
Did we envy her? After a vacation impossible at any other time in our lives, not a bit. Not a bit even the size of a cappuccino chip. 

Toby Devens

How about you? What was the best vacation of your life? Have you ever gone on holiday with just the gals?  Recommend it?

Toby in a Two-piece at 21


Friday, August 31, 2012

One Woman Faces Down One Big Storm: Happy Ending

We left Michele heading into dangerous Florida streets flooded by Isaac. Her final emails celebrate survival and gratitude as she and her neighbors clean up after the storm.

Monday Afternoon:

Going downtown to Ft. Lauderdale to call for my friend post-op, I could drive only in the middle lane as the inner and outer lanes were flooded.  In spots, the visibility was nada.  I arrived at the doctor’s office shaking.

The trip home took half the time, no problems, roads clear.  Looked like it was clearing up. Dropped my girlfriend off at her home and took my dogs out in my soggy side yard. Then, before we could get inside, the skies opened up once again and we got caught.
Call just came from Management:  We are experiencing flooding and DO NOT WALK THROUGH FLOODED AREAS.  There may be glass, bacteria and SNAKES.

Immediately finished the much needed chocolate before hubby comes home. Fortunately, this was a tropical disturbance.  I was able to laugh my way through it.  However, a real hurricane is devastating.  I’ve experienced a few of those – waiting on line and searching for water, gas and food, no electricity for days, terrible heat,  fallen trees, getting a new roof and even then we were lucky here – very lucky.
Thursday Afternoon:
Been very busy trying to get house back in order--downed tree cut and already taken away (again with son’s help), plants and yard things out of house, creepy crawlies still living here.  Management has cleaned up our property outside but there’s still a lot to be done.  There are repairmen all over the place. One hears the sounds of mowing, sees roofs awaiting to be replaced, and yet we were so fortunate. Monday, we received a foot of rain, fast and furious. 
I feel very guilty about my light-hearted approach to the storm when I see the damage it has done to the Gulf Coast and all those poor people.  Truly, when it gets really serious, so do I. Thanks for caring, everyone out there.
Here comes the sun!


Hurricanes, blackouts, earthquakes, tornadoes, and derechos (lines of heavy winds and fierce thunderstorms that swept through the Mid-Atlantic states recently),we seem to be experiencing a period of unusually intense weather. Do you have a disaster plan in place for "just in case?"  Besides the standard flashlights and bottled water, what items do you think are essential to keep at the ready? How does your disaster plan help protect you and your family? And don't forget the pets.
~ Toby Devens





Monday, August 27, 2012

One Woman Faces Down One Big Storm: Michele vs. Isaac

Michele and I have been friends since childhood. A pretty, quick-witted girl grew into a strong, bright and beautiful woman. Her town in Florida has been hit hard by previous hurricanes and this time was slated to be slammed by Isaac. Her emails began arriving Saturday night, with periodic updates since. Tinged with defiant humor at first, they turned scary today. I'll post later to let you know when she and her neighbors are out of danger.

Saturday Night:
So far, I'm having a lovely hurricane.

Thursday, my husband and his friend flew off to follow the Miami Marlins for a triple header in Los Angeles. The boys are having a blast. I'm here alone.

Thursday afternoon, our air conditioning started leaking. Repairman said we needed two new a/c systems--$9,000 and I shouldn’t use the a/c in the meantime! Temperature is in the 90’s, humidity over 1000%. And today, Isaac decided to hit the Keys.

I cannot close my shutters which we installed after Hurricane Andrew. My son is coming tomorrow A.M. (if this hurricane doesn’t strike by then) to close them. He’s as handy as I am with anything mechanical. And I have two left hands.

I've gotten drenched 3 times walking the dogs. I was almost run off the road by cars on my way to purchase water & dog food. Water in FL is more valuable than gasoline and practically sold out.

But other than that, I’m having a lovely hurricane.

I've already eaten 1/2 jar of choc. covered toffee (delish and purchased in Costco if anyone is interested) AND...7 choc. chip cookies I baked with 7 more to go.

Did I say having a wonderful time? Well let me clarify then that I hope your day is better!

I’ve got to laugh --crying will give me wrinkles.

Oh, where did I put the damn potato chips I bought for a special occasion....

Sunday Morning:
Heard from a friend in New York complaining about the humidity there. Spoiled brats!!!!!!

I went to bed at midnight. Was awakened by American Airlines cancelling husband's flight out of L.A for Monday morning.
I'd better bake a new batch of cookies before we lose electricity. Right now, high winds and flooding are predicted for this area.

However, let’s not forget the people who took the brunt of this---especially Haiti--thousands had to be evacuated. Please think about making donations to relief charities for Haiti.

Sunday Afternoon:
My darling children came over early this morning and battened down the hatches. I thought all one had to do was simply close those darn shutters. Not quite. You need a PhD in engineering to figure them out. Thanks again my sweet children.

My house is now the host for a number of frogs, chameleons and other creepy crawlers but at least they're safe from the outside elements. My pool has become a pond and there is so much water around the house that if need be, I'll be able to sail away.

Husband and friend are now due to arrive home at 4:00 tomorrow. Poor guys – they’re missing all the fun.

And oh yeah, Stein Mart is having the sale of all sales today without me. They'll probably go out of business in November because I wasn't there today.

The wind is picking up and we're under tornado watch as well.

Damn, have no more choc. chips, so can't bake more cookies. Am hunting for something high in sugar and fat.

Monday Morning:
When there’s a hurricane, I always get-in-touch via e-mail with Floridians (some are home alone) with copies to friends elsewhere who may be worried. My idea is to keep our minds occupied and our spirits high.

I don’t drink or do drugs but did share my chocolate/marshmallow/Craisins/Chinese noodles-in-lieu-of-peanuts recipe and gave out my secret of where I got the choc. toffees. You’d be surprised at how easily we surrender our deepest secrets under the threat of tornadoes and hurricanes.

Seriously, I try to make a joke of it and after a while, we're all laughing. I suppose that's the way I face the possibility of annihilation by a falling tree or the roof going airborne.

It’s still raining, pool is overflowing and we continue to be under tornado watch. But so far at least, we've been very fortunate. A lot of us have been through hurricanes before--horrendous. This was merely a tropical storm and I'm hoping it will fizzle out here. Many were not so lucky. Others are in its path. I'm thinking of them as I'm grateful for our escaping the worst wrath of Isaac. They need our thoughts and prayers.

Monday Afternoon:
I thought we'd faced the worst of the storm and laughed at its puniness. Well Isaac had the last laugh.

I'm trying to get out of the house to pick up my friend who just had surgery and Isaac’s laugh is reverberating all over the County. The walls are shaking with thunder and the rain is coming down in torrents. I keep checking my roof to see if it’s still holding.
On one hand, I know I have to leave, but on the other hand--when I hear the thunder and the power of the rain--it’s scary.

We all thought it would be over this morning and life would go on as usual. But it is lingering as if to have the last word. I’m sure the streets are flooded as my pool is past the overflow mark.

But...will this be my last missive?