Friday, December 27, 2013

The Christmas Letter

Dear friends,

We just received your Christmas letter

and are delighted to know that everyone

     is even better than last year,

that your children are all at Harvard or Yale,

that you went to Bermuda or Barbados

     for  vacation

that the wives are all in law school,

the husbands were promoted

and the cat is doing TV commercials.

Things here are about the same:

chicken pox, high heating bills, and the

      lawn furniture is rusting.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lost Ring

From the time of her marriage, my mother wore two thin gold circlets that served as her wedding band. After she died, my dad wore those rings on his pinky— and he was not a man for jewelry; about unostentatious as a New Yorker could get—but this was in memory of Mom. Before her passing, Dad had worn the ring given him by his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. That’s the ritual in the Jewish tradition that marks the entrance of a boy to manhood and welcomes him to participate fully in its observances. The ring had his initials WD for William Devens engraved in the gold and it originally held a small diamond that disappeared at some point, never to be replaced.

I inherited these bits of jewelry along with some other pieces, and they are—aside from my engagement ring, which is another bittersweet story—the most precious items I own. I wear the three together most days, fragments of memory wrought in gold, and think of them as talismans. I won’t fly, attend major meetings, or go to important doctors' appointments without them. I rub their surface for a blessing and am comforted by their warm glimmer in the flickering light of my parents’ memorial candles. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Midlife Love

My new novel Happy Any Day Now deals with a lead character approaching her fiftieth birthday who gets caught up in—among family twists and career turns—the complexities of middle aged love. And in Judith Soo Jin Raphael’s case, that’s a problem X 2.

Guest blogger Yona Zeldis
My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet)—my preceding novel—showcases a trio of bright and sassy women who find themselves single and ready for adventures in their fifties. But I’m far from the only author exploring the interesting topic of love seasoned by experience, sometimes soured by heartache, but always leavened with hope. Yona Zeldis McDonough is a talented practitioner of telling tales (30 or so years) out of school. She’s my guest blogger this week and she’s going to chat about her most recent novel, Two of a Kind (out today!) and the promise and perils of that midlife miracle called “love.”  —Toby 

Here’s Yona:
Yona's latest novel Two of a Kind is 
out today.
Young lovers approach each other with open and unencumbered arms; there are no strings, no baggage, no complicated back stories with which to contend. But middle-aged lovers approach each other with a truckload of emotional freight. If young love is a tabula rasa, then middle-aged love is a blackboard covered entirely in chalk. And it was middle-aged love that I set out to explore in my new novel, Two of a Kind.

My two protagonists, Dr. Andy Stern and interior designer Christina Connelly, are in their forties when they meet at a wedding. They take an instant and immediate dislike to one another: she thinks he’s boorish and brash; he finds her frosty and aloof. But because he needs his apartment redone and has heard rave reviews of her work, and she needs the money, these two mismatched individuals find themselves getting to know each other better—and then falling in love. 

It turns out that falling in love is the easy part; it’s staying in love that’s tough. There are differences in religion (he’s Jewish, she’s a lapsed Catholic) and differences in style (he’s loud, bossy and opinionated; she’s reserved and reflective). They each have experienced the death of a spouse—hers in a fire, his from ovarian cancer—and continue to compare each other to the partners they loved and lost. They have kids who have to be incorporated into whatever unit they try to build for themselves, and those kids certainly aren’t making things any easier. And Andy has the archetypal Jewish mother whose reaction to this union is less than ecstatic. 

But Andy and Christina persevere and it is the unfolding of their relationship, the push and pull of intimacy and fear, attraction and avoidance that became my focus in this novel. I had never charted a middle-aged relationship with all its fits and starts before, and I found I liked the process, perhaps because it dovetailed with the middle-age moment in my own life. While I am happily married and relieved that I don’t have to deal with the dating scene, I could really imagine the difficulties that would face me if I did. 

Maybe because I am middle-aged, I sympathized and empathized with my characters, both their desire for connection but also their fear of being wounded. And the events that help them overcome the fear were as surprising to me as they were to them. It was wonderful to find out that even middle-aged lovers—and writers—are still capable of being surprised now and then. 

Read more about Yona and her new book at:

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Book on the Brink...and Other Updates

 *A major giveaway of Happy Any Day Now is up and running on the review site Goodreads. Click on over to Goodreads and enter to win one of twenty-five copies of the book.  It's a great place to check out reader comments about all the latest releases. And you can post reviews of your favorites.

 *On another front, I’m thrilled to let you know that Happy Any Day Now will be out as an audio book, produced by Tantor Media and narrated by Donna Postel. You’ll probably recognize Donna’s engagingly warm voice from the thousands of commercials she’s done and the many audio books she’s recorded. In a recent email to me, she wrote: “I finished recording today, which is normally a cause for celebration, but I just didn't want this one to end!”  I can hardly wait to hear the story read aloud by this wonderful voice-over actress.

*Also, a reminder that as we head to the August 6th pub date, Happy Any Day Now is currently available for pre-order at online booksellers (there are hotlinks to a slew of them on my website 's homepage) and in traditional “brick and mortar” bookstores. Readers can choose from a smorgasbord of formats: trade paperback for those of us who still like to turn pages, electronically for e-readers such as Kindle and Nook, plus the aforementioned audio book, and in MP3 for download. Whatever the device, there should be version designed for it.

 *My heartfelt thanks to Romantic Times for awarding  Happy Any Day Now four stars in its "mainstream fiction" category. RT's advance review says, “This humorous tale of love and life...will have you laughing one minute and tearing up the next.” And no, HADN is not a romance novel, but love always plays an important role in my characters’ lives, and with two flawed but fascinating men vying for her attention, Judith Soo Jin Raphael gets caught up in a sizzling triangle that rewrites her past and threatens her future.    

 *Sometimes you need to take a break from writing and move to something that's also creatively satisfying, but high in calories. My most recent bout of cooking fever was inspired by two books. Last January, I fell in love with and blogged about Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients  Now, its luscious sequel, The Lost Art of Mixing, propelled me back into the kitchen, and Nancy Baggett's All-American Dessert Book provided the recipe for a summer fruit cobbler (visit Nancy's  blog was a sweet hit at a dinner party this weekend.

 *Finally, I love talking about Happy Any Day Now--the book's characters, plot and themes, how I came to write the story (a grandmother I never met and a cousin I hardly knew were major inspirations), and the joy and pain associated with creating a novel. My calendar is starting to fill, so if you're interested in having me speak to your organization, book club or group, drop me a line at

 And I always enjoy hearing from you and about you on this blog.



Monday, June 10, 2013

The Two Minute Audition

Last Tuesday, I was in New York City for an audition before the Jewish Book Council's Author Network. The JBC is a godsend of an organization for authors who want to get the word out about their books. Here's what the network does. From their website:

"The JBC Network is designed to benefit communities that offer Jewish book programs and the authors of Jewish-interest books. The JBC Network—with over 100 member organizations across North America, including JCCs, synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Federations, and cultural centers—gives approximately 200 authors a platform for sharing their books each year. The program connects authors with their readers and promotes Jewish culture through Jewish book events."
I was one of sixty writers as I presented my new book, Happy Any Day Now, to an audience of movers and shakers from Jewish communities across the continent. If we did well and matched their needs, we'd be invited to speak to their groups back home.
Now, all of you who know me either personally or electronically (sounds like Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein, no?) are aware that I love to talk about my books. As I create them, I fall in love with my characters and their stories. My theory is that passion in all its forms is contagious. Therefore, if I'm crazy about my lead character, Judith Soo Jin Raphael, you'll be panting to meet her and hear about how this half Korean, half Jewish, poor, fatherless kid with her nose pressed against the window plays out her desire to become a real American, a happy insider. If I get her hilarious and wise Korean immigrant mother down right, if I draw an irresistible picture of her rascal of a father returning after an absence of decades, if I capture her Australian boyfriend and his rival, Judith's former lover, who's haunted her memory for decades and materializes just in time for her fiftieth birthday, if I make everything come alive, you'll be equally captivated. I can talk about my book for an easy twenty minutes, an easier forty, thrilled to introduce you to my latest literary cast.

In the name of full disclosure, I should tell you that in junior high school I was awarded first place in a public speaking contest for my rendition of Lewis Carroll's poem, "Father William." To this day, I have friends who might not remember what they ate for breakfast, but still vividly recall my stroking an imaginary beard as I intoned, “’In my youth,’ said the sage...”  Worse still: in high school I was voted a Senior Celeb. Not "Class Cutie" or "Girl Most Likely to Succeed," but "Class Orator." The only thing that saved me from terminal geekiness was that I was also an Erasmus Hall Booster, the equivalent of cheerleader, probably because my voice had been groomed to booming by my reading bible verses aloud on stage every Friday at chapel (my public school had been founded by the Dutch Reformed Church and did its own thing).

So I have a history of actually relishing "public speaking." Which, according to an old, perhaps apocryphal National Enquirer survey, topped "death" as its readers' most feared experience. All this to make clear that the thought of getting up before a hundred or more people to talk about my book didn't faze me. I looked forward to it. Except—here's the kicker—the JBC gives you only two minutes for your "elevator pitch." One hundred and twenty seconds. It takes me longer than two minutes to clear my throat and that's the time I had to present a book over which I’d labored for years.

And yet...two minutes is actually a genius idea because, like writing poetry, a constraint of time or space forces you to reduce an idea to its essence. And, more practically, it's the only way the JBC can get through 200 authors in three days. To its credit, the organization provided each of us a coach, who guided us through the process of getting our talks in shape. Joyce was remarkable. She made suggestions. She timed me. She helped me edit. She cheered me on.

And so, last Tuesday, in a large, well appointed room, I heard about books that featured a Jewish Superman, gay marriage, Hollywood in the thirties, a novel about Anne Frank's sister, a hard boiled LA mystery, some memoirs, coffee table tomes, and how-to's. Jewish and non-Jewish authors, young and old, strode to the mike and delivered the goods while a gracious woman held up posters that let them know how much of their precious two minutes they had left. Then it was my turn. As I absorbed the real meaning of Einstein's theory of relativity in terms of two minutes—hand on hot stove, long; lover's embrace, short—I gave it my all. Was it my finest hour? Well, of course not. My finest two minutes? Only time, that thief, will tell. But it was a challenge and an adventure. And, wow, was it fun!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Next Big Thing! An Interview About My Next Book

The Next Big Thing is an author interview series currently generating lots of buzz for its inside look into how writers, working in a variety of genres, create their best work. My special thanks to Becki Melchione who, along with Lauren Eisenberg Davis, invited me to participate and provided the questions. You can see Becki’s interview about her book, Practice Radical Hope: Motherhood After Cancer at:

And now, although I’ve never been taller than 5‘ 3” in my life, it’s my turn to be The Next Big Thing!
Seeing Midlife Crisis on the bookstore shelf
 for the first time was a major thrill!

1. What is the working title of your book?
My new novel is called Happy Any Day Now.

2. What genre does your book fall under?
It’s considered mainstream women’s fiction, but I think men will also enjoy it. My first novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet), was primarily marketed to women. But I got some wonderful,  surprising fan mail from men sent to my website Apparently, a number of XYers thought the story—and the characters—delivered some deep insights into female behavior. I’m amazed and also amused that many men really do think woman are a mystery and that guys need an operating manual to figure out how we work.

3. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Half-Jewish, half-Korean cellist deals with the return of two men—one father, one boyfriend—who deserted her when she was younger and, as a result of their reappearance, develops a  case of stage fright that threatens her career and her happiness. Whew! One very long, pretty convoluted  sentence that hardly tells it all.

4. Where did the idea come from for the book?
While doing some genealogical research, I unearthed the ship’s manifest for my maternal grandmother who emigrated from Austria around the turn of the century. That started me thinking about the immigrant experience which is universal. And so Grace, a Korean war-bride, and the mother of my protagonist was born. Judith came next, and soon we had a quorum of characters in search of a plot.

One strong thread of that plot came from a different direction. Having people from high school and college find me on Facebook and other sources online, sparked the theme of loss and return. What happens when important figures from your past suddenly barge into your present to make mischief? I had fun exploring that theme and constructing the narrative around it.

That’s as close as I can get to the source of the book’s origin. I try not to over-analyze the creative process. It’s like sleight-of-hand. You don’t want to look too closely. My theory is: don’t mess with the magic.

5. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

It’s difficult  to cast Judith and Grace because there are few Asian-American actors in the spotlight. Shame. But Lucy Liu would be perfect for Judith Soo Jin Raphael. Kathy Bates has Grace’s build and sly sense of humor. I think Daniel Crag would be spot-on as Geoff,  Judith’s big, bluff Australian boyfriend. And for Charlie, the judge who resurfaces to shake-up her life, Bradley Cooper, but aged by ten years with some laugh lines and a little gray in the hair. He’s got to lose the beard, though—Charles Evans Pruitt would only wear a beard if he broke the hand that held his razor. Cooper’s got the elegance, the intelligence, and Charlie’s electric blue eyes that Judith finds so hypnotic. Also, as her father, that rascal Irwin—Richard Drayfuss.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have had an agent for my past two books—a wonderful one, Elaine English. She handles only women’s fiction and is currently not taking on new clients. She’s been more than an agent really; she she’s been a mentor and a friend.

Happy Any Day Now and the book to follow will be published by Penguin/New American Library. Pub date for Happy Any Day Now is scheduled for this coming August. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon right now.

I’m already working on the next novel  a stand-alone with a whole new cast, fresh settings, and different challenges. It’s been fun writing so far.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript for Happy Any Day Now?

Almost a year. But that was the first draft. There were four or five more.  I kept coming up with ways to sharpen a plot point, add nuance to a character, prune extraneous material. I know writers who disparage the editing process. But that’s where the story really comes to life, in the editing. It’s the polishing that makes it shine.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t distance myself far enough to make that kind of judgment. The story is still too fresh and the characters too present. Ask me again in five years when I hope to have a grander perspective.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m  always inspired to write by the woman—and men—who face challenges in their lives with grace and humor. My books have serious themes, but I’ve been told they’re LOL funny.  I want my readers to laugh a lot and tear up occasionally and come away feeling they’ve had a good, satisfying read.

On a more personal level, when things get tough in my life, especially in the writing aspect, I look to my daughter—my greatest accomplishment—whose confidence in me never falters. “Just a speed bump” she tells me, when I hit one with teeth-rattling force. Kids and grandkids are inspiring. You want to make them proud, and you want to serve as an example that creative expression is an essential part of a rich life.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Well, Happy Any Day Now deals with a character who’s bright, energetic, sexy, witty,  open to new adventures—and she’s on the cusp of fifty. Midlife and beyond can be (not to sound treacly) the beginning of your most happy, productive, fulfilling days. I count myself as a living example of that little bonus.  After all, it's the skills I've honed and the history I've amassed that help me write books people want to read.  I figure that more than compensates for a blaze of candles on the birthday cake.

Coming Up On Next Big Thing! Alan Zendell writes that he has been a physicist, engineer, and software developer. Later in life, he turned to writing fiction. His name is attached to three novels, a number of short stories, and an epic novel which is currently being serialized. His first love is science fiction, but he has a soft spot for romance and marriage which manages to peek out of everything he writes. Alan will discuss his well-reviewed novel, The Portal, next Friday at
In the meantime, I'd love to hear questions or comments about my Next Big Thing! interview.
Toby Devens



Thursday, March 7, 2013

What’s IN, What’s OUT—for Midlifers

I was browsing the Harper’s Bazaar website for a costume detail I needed for my novel under construction. Suddenly, up popped the magazine’s list of what’s hot and what’s definitely passé for this spring. It occurred to me that it was time to inaugurate this blog’s annual thumbs up/thumbs down feature. It focuses on our generation and isn’t restricted to fashion, though it kicks off that way. are some of my personal cheers and boos with an invitation to contribute your own.

1. OUT: Shoes with seven inch heels. Decades back, when (in Bass Weejuns or Doc Martens) I took to the barricades for women’s rights, I couldn't have imagined we’d ever again be hobbled by something we chose to wear.
In the 21st century, females are tottering back to repressive attire in what one online store markets as “slut stilettos.” Incredible. Women of all ages unite! We've come too far to give up our soles (and our souls)

IN: High heels, if you elect to wear them. But of respectable, and not dangerous, heights. My podatrist recommends high-ish heels for her patients with plantar fasciitis. Good for the arches. And I appreciate the extra height and the shapely way my legs look in heels. But never, ever, the ankle-breakers.

2. OUT:  Lots of Jewelry Worn Simultaneously. At a reunion I recently attended, one woman had decked herself out like a Christmas tree. She wore a thick gold necklace, fussy earrings, a large pin, and multi bracelets and rings. What was she thinking? Maybe she wanted to flaunt her grown-up success to the junior high classmates who tormented her decades before, but bling overkill does not equal revenge. Or elegance.

IN: Statement Jewelry: One interesting or beautiful piece (plus earrings and watch, if desired) does the trick. Too much suggests you’re trying to distract from body parts that are not what they once were.

3. OUT: Phoning your kids more than once a day. Enough already. Your children (grandchildren are another story) should no longer be the primary focus of your life. They’re grownups with lives of their own. Give the young’uns breathing space. Play with friends your own age who will not inherit. They’ll actually tell you when you’re boring them to bits.

IN:  Texting and Facebook. The kids are great about calling, so I show my gratitude by trying not to over-phone. Instead, I text with my  daughter and daughters-in-law. In quick exchanges, I establish that they’re wonderful (with or without communication) and they conclude I’m thriving. When I worry about them getting home safely through a snowstorm or just want to check out their adventures, I go to their Facebook pages.  They don’t even need to know I’ve dropped by. Very CIA.

4. OUT: Reading a so-so book to the very end. Certainly, give it a chance. Some authors clear their throats, as my writer friends say, taking a while to set up the story. Feel free to skim. If, however, by chapter three, the book hasn’t hooked you, fuhggedboudit.

IN: Book clubs. You’re corralled into reading books wouldn’t normally choose. My couples book club has done The Art of Fielding, The Geography of Bliss, Steve Jobs’ bio, Unbroken. We’re all over the map. New experiences create new brain cells.  And it’s so much fun to trade critiques.

5. OUT: Emails that contain poetic treacle celebrating the winter of our lives. These depressing odes began pouring in on my fortieth birthday. Oh, puh-leeze. Every morning, I wake up healthy is a renewed spring. The trick to growing older is to make each day a year.
IN: Emails that direct you to YouTube for doo-wop renditions by The Platters, or Yo-Yo Ma playing the prelude from  Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. Messages from long lost cousins. Tips about new uses for vinegar. Supposedly, you can make your nail polish application last longer if you first wipe your nails with a cotton ball soaked in distilled white vingar. Now that was a helpful email.

6. OUT: High impact aerobics. Until two years ago, I was taking classes with women barely out of puberty. I am very competitive; I kept up.  Problem was, my knee didn’t. I limped into the orthopedist who said,  “You’ve got what I call scaloppini cartilage. Pounded very thin. My dear, you have zumbaed your last zumba.”

IN: Aqua Zumba. You dance in a heated pool. No pressure on the knee and  the water’s resistance makes for a super cardio workout. So, not quite finished yet, Doc.

7. OUT: Procrastinating. As businessman Victor Kiam said, “Procrastination is opportunity’s assassin.”  We postpone because we’re afraid of failure. Which brings me to my favorite quote of Kiam’s: “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward.”  Brilliant.

IN: Getting it done. I recently heard a rabbi say to his congregation, “God can get it perfect. You’re not God. All you have to do is get it done.” My new credo? Do it. Then edit.

8. OUT: Twenty-and early-thirty-something actors. So confident. So boring. So predictable with their smooth skin and oddly named children.

IN: Acting in the extreme. I give you Maggie Smith and Quvenzhané Wallis.  Terrence Stamp and Suraj Sharma, the boy from Life of Pi.

9. OUT: Canasta, Rummykub, and Mexican Train.

IN: Words with Friends, Kindle Scrabble, Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies.

10: OUT:  Long-winded Blog entries.

IN:  Your own Ins and Outs. Looking forward to your sharing them.

Toby Devens


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine’s Day—Bah! Humbug! or Bravo!

OK, Cupid! (No, I don’t mean the dating website that caters mostly to singles still paying off their college loans.) I’m giving two thumbs up to the Roman god of love, aka Eros to the ancient Greeks, aka the Hallmarkian creation of angelic romantic bliss that hovers in the air throughout the year and lands with a melodic flutter of wings (or a resounding thud) on February 14.

Valentine’s Day is kind of like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get until you sink your teeth into it. In the way that New Year’s Eve is the ultimate dating night of the year—candellight, wine and a midnight kiss with your sweetie—Valentine’s Day is the measure of how well you did selecting that sweetie. At the end of the day, did you revel in a rich, delicious truffle, or did you crack a tooth on an unexpected nut?
Have something sweet on Valentine's Day. The recipe for
these cookies is on Nancy Baggett's delicious website
Valentine’s Day horror stories rival the spookiest Halloween tales. Here’s a Whitman’s sampler. Consider my friend whose supposedly exclusive boyfriend got his cards mixed in his envelopes. Madame X received Madame Y’s card. “Darling Arianna,” my friend Lauren read, and on to a flowery, very amorous poem above the sign-off that began, “Ever yours.” Which, as a result of this farce, boyfriend no longer is, at least for Lauren.

Friend #2 ‘s beloved broke up with her on Valentine’s Day. Imagine, 364 perfectly reasonable days to deliver the message, and he picks that one. To this moment, my friend defends the indefensible. Of course, he should have dropped the bomb sooner, or later. But work got in his way, or travel, or whatever was more important, which was—she sighs—probably everything. Because he wasn’t a bad fellow. Really. It’s just that his timing was lousy. And with a push-off like that, tantamount to getting shoved down a luge run on the Matterhorn, she had no choice but to move on.
Have all my friends been stabbed in the aorta by cupid's arrow? Indeed not. Decades ago, I attended a Valentine’s Day wedding that was done up in pink and cream, lace and satin. It featured bridesmaids dressed in flamingo peu de soie, matchbooks (this is how far back we’re going) imprinted with entwined hearts above the bride and groom’s first names, and a towering wedding cake frosted in pink and decorated with rosettes and hearts. True to their theme, the couple honeymooned in the Poconos where they revolved on a heart shaped bed that played “You Light Up my Life.” Chrissie and Jeff, now grandparents of infant twins, have been lighting up one another’s lives for thirty-five years.

I personally know of two engagements sealed on the red letter day, one starring a heart shaped lollapalooza of a diamond. Which reminds me that in certain regions, every kiss does not begin with Kay. More likely, it begins with Katz. In New York, where I grew up, diamonds are purchased not at chain stores, but in Manhattan’s jewelry district where “this flawless pear shape just arrived from my cousin in South Africa,” or “this three carat marquise was cut personally by my uncle in Antwerp.” As I write this, I’m glancing at my own ring with its twist of two solitaires, one of which is the diamond my father gave to my mother upon their engagement.
My parents' story is one of those eternal ones, with an ending worthy of Dickens. My dad was a true romantic who found the love of his life in my mom. At seventy-five, he’d proclaim to all within earshot, “Look at that woman’s complexion. Still perfect. Isn’t she beautiful?” Valentine’s Day was his time to shine.  Now, he didn’t believe in gilding the lily. No fancy innovations, just “Tradition!” Unfailingly, he presented my mom with a dozen roses, though she wound up with eleven because he always pulled a single bloom to hand to me. And under his arm, two boxes of candy, Barton’s or Barricini’s, the prime purveyors in Brooklyn back then. A giant red satin heart crammed with assorted soft centers and chews for my mom. A smaller pink heart for me.

So, when William Devens died on Valentine’s Day, I felt there was something fitting about his date of departure. Not morbid. Bittersweet. A reminder from him about how much he adored my mother and treasured his daughter. I always remember that, but on Valentine’s day, especially.
In midlife, I find I am less like Scrooge (Bah! Humbug!) and more like Marley's ghost, floating on memories of good Valentine’s days past, schlepping the chains of not so wonderful ones. My history is mixed, but bottom line, I’m all for romance and for the day dedicated to celebrating it. So bring on the flowers. Bring on the candy. Hold the diamonds (my insurance premiums are high enough). And hold on to this thought: If you have true love, cherish it. If you’ve ever had it, be grateful. If you’re looking forward, well... you never know. Happy Valentine’s Day and may Cupid bless us, everyone.

 Toby Devens
Share the love by posting comments about Valentine’s Day, love found, lost and misplaced, the best and worst of it. One response will receive an inscribed copy of My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet), a story of love, laughter, revenge and redemption. Winner of our last contest is Binnie Syril Braunstein for her chicken soup recipe. A copy of my new novel Happy Any Day Now (Penguin/NAL) will be on its way to Binnie at pub date in August.






Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Cook or Not to Cook?~That Is the Midlife Question

Last week, inspired by the reading (re-reading for the pure pleasure of absorbing her mouthwatering writing) of Erica Bauemeister’s marvelous novel of food and love, The School of Essential Ingredients, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time—I cooked. I didn’t just throw something together to satisfy a generic appetite with generic calories, but—taking in the aroma of oregano, the silky feel of flour on my fingertips , the sound of whisk against china as I whipped eggs to a froth—I mindfully, happily, actually cooked.

Within a single few days, I simmered white chili and stir-fried beef with bok choy. For brunch, I made my daughter-in-law’s crème brulee French toast casserole, a puff of souffléd challa over a foundation of caramelized syrup. Exquisite, my guests said. I brewed minestrone. Made butterscotch pudding from scratch. The kitchen gods (sculpted in stone and enthroned atop my fridge) smiled down on me. It had been a while.
I used to cook and be cooked for all the time. Ask any woman—having a man cook for you is a delicious turn-on. I have been wooed with soup, seduced by a stew, soothed with risotto. And I’ve cooked to express all kinds of love: baked a child’s birthday cake, simmered a family pot of chicken soup for cold nights. Also, for husbands and other close friends, made a simple sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil that spoke of summer in winter and asked for a warm embrace in a warm bed. And in summer, fixed crab cakes, seasoned with Old Bay—a sexy blend of spices. Crab, some say, is an aphrodisiac. Agreed. Cooking at its best is an expression of something higher, more abstract than zucchini. Call it love. Call it art.

Among many of my midlife friends, it’s become a lost art. “I no longer cook,” says a married one. “I heat and I arrange.” She buys ready-to-serve dishes from Wegmans or pre-marinated meats from Trader Joes and saves homemade for when the kids are in from college.  A divorced friend shrugs. “My mother told me that the fastest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Wrong. The girlfriend followed a different map and snagged the guy. So cooking leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ” She dines out often, or scrambles eggs or micros Lean Cuisines. I understand. I’m guilty myself. Still, reading Erica Bauermeister's book made me realize how much we-who-no-longer-cook are missing.
Eight times year I’m reminded of how food and its preparation connect us. Both the gourmet group and a couples book club I belong to have dinner as the evening’s fulcrum. And the spouses cook these dinners together, work side by side, chopping, sautéing, roasting, baking homemade bread. Toba may do the gazpacho and Andy his incomparable salad, but they’re hip-to-hip in the kitchen. Lenne glazes the cornish hens while Hal mashes the potatoes. PJ and Hamp work in tandem. These couples may be past the baby-making stage, but they’re still creating something lovely together, a feast at least, and taking pleasure in the process.

I know of a woman who brags that she hasn’t cooked dinner for her family in decades, except on holidays. Today this social worker has retired to halftime practice and usually dines early, on whatever, and alone. Her husband, a workaholic, logs in around nine having grabbed a slice of pizza at the commuter train station or yogurt from the fridge. Which he eats in solitary silence. How sad, I think. How symptomatic of a marriage gone as stale as a week-old bagel.
Cooking is love in the active sense. For lovers, it’s a dance together. For family, it’s glue made of sugar and butter and cinnamon. For friends it's a gift. Of course I have more half-baked theories. But right now there’s a meatloaf in the oven I need to check. It’s my mother’s recipe, with a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and onions.  It will taste of love and memory, of laughter and lost times. And it won’t need ketchup.

Toby Devens

We would love to read your comments on the joys of cooking—or not cooking—at midife. And please share your favorite recipes.  One will win for its author an inscribed copy of my next novel, Happy Any Day Now, coming out this summer.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hillary's Hair: Why Do We Care?

She’s baaaaack. After the flu and the concussion and the blood clot. After Fox News accused her of malingering to avoid testifying about Benghazi, and the world elected her its most admired woman, trumping even Michelle Obama, Hillary survives. She showed up at the office yesterday, looking healthy and rested. She smiled dazzlingly and her eyes twinkled. She wore a very unstatespersonlike hot pink jacket and— I can feel myself hurtling down the slippery slope here, so stop me before I reach bottom—her hair looked fabulous. Like I care. Really, I swear on Martha Washington’s grave, I don’t. But in the interest of giving the public what it obviously so desperately craves, this entry will consider what is most fascinating about Hillary: her hair. The multi-purpose, wash-and-wear, devil-make-care, flip-and-flare, imprisoned-in-a-rubber-band snare, too short, too long, Hillary hair.

At the party I attended on New Year’s Eve, a man I’d known and respected for years, a major Hillary fan BTW, said, apropos of absolutely nothing, “So what’s with Hillary’s hair?”
A collective gasp whooshed around the living room. At that moment, the ball in Times Square quivered in its perch. Horns fell silent. Ryan Seacrest, believe it or not, fell silent. Mack, a pseudonym I’ll use for our questioner so he won’t be forced to enter the witness protection program, repeated, because those around him seemed too stunned to answer, “I mean, what’s with the hair?”

I cleared my throat to tell him what. In spades. But his wife beat me to it. She rolled her eyes, reached over and applied a very expert Three Stooges noogie to his balding pate before proceeding to explain in a barely controlled vibrato, “The woman has flown almost a million miles in the last four years. Do you know what an airplane's re-circulated air does to hair? Turns it to straw.”

I chimed in, “When I shampooed in the hard Los Angeles water last month, I had to use half a bottle of L’Oreal’s Total Repair to untangle my curls. The tap water even in the five star hotels in Sudan (do they have five star hotels in Sudan?) doesn’t approach the quality of camel pee. That’s what the Secretary of State of the foremost (maybe still) western power sluices through her hair.”
“Hey, Mack, you seem to have hit a nerve,” a male voice contributed.

It had come to this. Men commenting on Hillary’s hair. Okay, Rush Limbaugh gagging over an unfortunate upsweep do of Hillary’s and posting a Bride of Frankenstein doctored photo on his website. Rush, I can understand. But normal men?

Women I forgive. Our hair, and other women’s hair, is an obsession of my gender. Not because we don’t possess the intellect for more lofty obsessions, but because we’ve been conditioned (forgive the pun) since childhood to be ruled by our hair. Take me, for example. This is my second post about hair and my blog has only been up since July. I am mortified. I am repentant. I am writing this.
“Why doesn’t anyone talk about  John Boehner’s hair? Looks like a wig to me. And do you remember Tom Delay’s shiny black plastic toupee. Did you ever hear comments about that?” This was called in by a woman on the far side of the room.

From another:“Carl Levin’s comb-over starts an inch above his left ear.” The Democrat senator from Michigan has to be in terror of a high wind. “Does that make the New York Times? What about men and appearance?”
“They say Chris Christie’s fat,” a male voice countered.

“And they, whoever they are besides dietitians, find it endearing. Half grizzly bear, half Teddy and he takes no crap from no quarter. The man swings weight, among other anatomical features, and he’s admired for it.” I sighed. “The Huffington Post ran a slide show of photos spanning the Hillary hair years between college and now. Bangs and no bangs. Headbands. Sexy wavy. Short and sassy. Long and exhausted. She’s probably been through hundreds of hairstyles since Wellesley.” I paused for effect. “Do you really think that’s accidental?”
All heads turned. A conspiracy theory starring Hillary Clinton? Irresistible. Someone muted the televised cacophony from Times Square. “This is a very smart, very shrewd woman,“ I continued. “She’s sending us a message.”

“A message? “ was the chorused question.
“ A message that she’s flexible. She’s adaptable. She embraces change. She welcomes diversity. She’s way beyond superficial concerns. She chooses to sacrifice form for function. She’s willing to put her scalp on the line for these United Sates of America.“ I caught a pre- coup de gras breath.  “Which makes her perfect presidential material. Watch out for 2016.”

The conservatives hanging around the bar groaned in unison and many hands simultaneously reached for the bottle of Gray Goose.
Yet now, just as we have her back, Hillary’s leaving us. In two weeks she’ll be departing the State Department. How she will wear her hair as she ends this chapter in her career is unknown. Maybe she’ll do a Sinead O’Connor. Maybe a perky pageboy, like Mary Tyler Moore's as she edged to the door at WJM-Minneapolis in the final episode. At which point, those who think Hillary was the best secretary of state since John Quincy Adams will no doubt be tearing their own hair. And those who think she’s the devil incarnate will be praying it is her final episode. My fellow Americans, don’t count on it.

In the meantime, in her most recent stepping stone role she will be replaced by John Kerry. John Kerry! Now what’s with that hair?

Toby Devens