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