Archive | Wisdom of the Ages

Being Open To New Experiences: Not Everything Is A Lima Bean

I always tell my son not to pass judgment on anything before he’s tried it out. Whether it’s lima beans or cricket, he isn’t allowed to say that he doesn’t like something until he’s given it a fair shake.

Lately I’ve been telling myself this as well.

You may recall that a few months back, my son started a new school. And while I was very excited for *him* to make new friends…take new classes…heck, even to don that new pink (!) tie,I decided ex-ante that *I* didn’t need any new friends. Sure, I planned to attend all the parents’ evenings and concerts and do playdates and what have you, but for me it would all be strictly business. (Or possibly good blog material. Because, let’s be honest, it always is.) I just…Didn’t. Need. New. Friends. Damn it!

I’m not exactly sure where this militant anti-social attitude came from. After all, I’m an extrovert. I love meeting new people and will happily chat up just about anyone in just about any situation. My husband’s the same way. But somehow, when faced with a new social environment that was somewhat different from the one I’d been hanging (comfortably) in, I got all defensive…and judgmental…and uptight.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a wallflower. I went to a holiday party – and had a really good time.

Sure, as I wandered in and was blinded by all the glittery cocktail dresses, I realized that I was woefully under-dressed and should have consulted LPC about what to wear before I left. And I’m fairly certain that I was the only woman drinking beer.

But I had at least three or four conversations that I really enjoyed, including one with a Jewish guy – married to a fellow Shiksa. We jointly bemoaned how hard it is to find a synagogue in London that is truly open to “patrilineal” Jews – i.e., kids where only the father is Jewish and who thus don’t technically “count” as Jews. (FYI: Lately I’ve been eyeing the Gay and Lesbian synagogue here, despite being neither gay, nor lesbian, nor Jewish. But I’ll leave that for another blog post, speaking of material…)

Then I went to a birthday party over the weekend and had this same experience all over again. This time, I ended up talking to a couple with a child at the school for about 45 minutes. The husband was English but had grown up in the States. He and I bonded over how Americans take it for granted that you get involved in your children’s school, whether coaching (as he does) or raising money (as I do), whereas for the Brits that’s still largely anathema. The wife was Indian and she and I bonded over what it’s like to be a foreigner at a predominantly English school.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that even as adults, we need to be open to new experiences and “give them a go” as we say on this side of the pond. Not everything is a lima bean. New experiences can be fun. New people can be stimulating. And most importantly, as a friend of mine put it so succinctly: “Not everyone is an *&%hole.”

Hard to argue with that.

Image: Doc Marten Lima Beans by luluisforlovers via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Managing Your Workload: Take a Self-Imposed Vacation

I’m taking a vacation this week.

Well, actually I’ll be right here in my home. But I’m going to pretend that I’m on vacation…with respect to this blog, at least.

You see, among the many different slashes I wear in my current life as a freelance writer, one of them is novelist. OK, that’s not quite right. Why don’t we say “aspiring novelist”? (I’ll feel better.)

You see, I have the novel written. I just that haven’t sold it. And in order to do that, I need to clear a couple of days in my schedule to send out the draft to the appropriate people. I know who those people are (some call them agents), and I know which ones I want to send it to. I even have all the materials ready. So I just need to sit down, go through the list, figure out who needs what, and then do some photocopying and stapling and standing in line at the post office. (If it isn’t on strike…).

In short: I need to put the rubber to the road and just do it, in the immortal words of Nike.

Which takes…time. And that’s something I don’t have a lot of because I’m, well, blogging. (She said, fully aware that she was blogging about not blogging. What can I say? Old habits die hard…)

It’s really hard for me to take time off from this blog, mostly because I love it, and partly because – as someone with a super-ego that even Freud would find daunting – I feel that I *should* be blogging (unless I’m on vacation).

So I decided to tell myself that I am on vacation. One of the many things I’ve learned from my beloved life coach is that in order to change your behavior, you need to change your expectations. She always gives me the example of the “sick day.” When you’re sick, you don’t expect yourself to get as much done. You go easy on yourself. Similarly, when you’re on vacation, you don’t bring work along with you (hopefully). You understand that the point of the holiday is precisely to stop working for awhile.

So I’m going to put myself on a self-imposed vacation, during which time I am going to do my very best to send my novel out to ten more agents. Because we all know that the secret of being a writer is persistence. Sometimes, that’s about forcing yourself to sit down at the computer and bang out those 1000 words. Sometimes, it’s just about sitting down, period. That’s not my problem right now. My problem is committing myself to selling the book that I wrote. And making the time to let that happen.

So good-bye. And wish me well. Feel free to imagine me wherever you’d like…Tahiti? Iceland? The Galapagos?

See you next week.


Image: My Feet in a Paradisiac Beach by Princess Cy via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Stages of Adulthood: Is Age A Number Or A Concept?

Does your actual age tell you anything about where you *are* in adulthood?

I got to thinking about this lately after two public policy proposals emerged that explicitly addressed this very question.

The first was a recommendation earlier this summer in Japan to lower the official age of adulthood from 20 to 18. The reasoning? To encourage young adults to vote, participate in society more and assume their own credit card debt. In short:  to cultivate a greater sense of responsibility, that hallmark of adulthood.

The second is a proposal thrown out at the Conservative Party Conference in the UK last week to raise the official retirement age in this country to 66 (It is currently 65 for men and 60 for women). The logic here is predominantly fiscal – to shore up budget deficits by paying out less in government pension schemes. But Conservative Party Leader David Cameron also noted that with average life expectancy at 86 (up from 81 five years ago), people can now be more productive at an older age. The upshot: we can elevate the age at which it is “reasonable” to stop working.

Me? At the risk of sounding like a Juicy Fruit commercial, I’ve always thought about the stages of adulthood as more of a feeling than a flavor. Which is to say, I don’t think numbers mean all that much when talking about things like responsibility and productivity. (Some nagging feeling tells me I’ve gotten my 1970s chewing gum commercials mixed up…perhaps another inadvertent sign of aging.)

Take middle age. As noted in this recent article in the Times On Line, middle age can technically be defined as lying anywhere between 35 and 65. But as the author points out, “middle age” is much more of an attitude than a precise time of life.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, when my husband and I had a younger colleague and his wife over for lunch. They were both probably in their early 30s – maybe 10 or 12 years younger than us – so not such a huge age difference. But what really struck me most as we talked was what a different place they were at in life. To wit:

1. Choosing what kind of job best suited their career ambitions vs. rethinking career entirely.

2. Exploring neighborhoods in London to find the best fit vs. grimly routing out rodents in effort to come to peace with (exceedingly well-located) closet.

3. Sleeping in until 11 am vs. not being able to remember a time when 7 didn’t feel self-indulgent.

I don’t say any of this with envy. (OK, maybe a tinge of envy.) I very much embrace the idea of life as one giant adventure, into which we never quite “settle in.” And I like to think that this is the feeling that carries us through the different stages of adulthood. Indeed, that is – in many ways – what this blog is all about.

But that lunch did serve one of those “aha” moments in life where you suddenly realize that you’ve…grown up. To wit: as soon as they departed, my husband began grumbling about needing to change his contact lenses. And I said that my back hurt and I really needed to go home and do my exercises.

Yup, folks. We’re middle aged.

*****

One of my quiet obsessions these days is what’s going on with the European Left. Here’s my post in yesterday’s PoliticsDaily.com about Ten Reasons the Left is Failing in Europe.

Image: The Taste is Gonna Mooova Ya by Pirate Johnny via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Learning to Love Your Lisp: Life Lessons From My Five Year Old

My five year-old daughter has a lisp.

Not an in-your-face, over-the-top Sylvester the Cat “Suffering Succotash'” sort of thing. But a fairly straight forward, middle-of-the-road inter-dental lisp.

Last Fall, we took her to see a speech therapist to work on it. And even though I knew that the therapy would prove helpful, I secretly dreaded going. In my mind, you see, the lisp was a stigma. It was something that set her apart from the other kids and made her more difficult to understand. And so I approached the topic of speech therapy with her very delicately, afraid that she’d be ashamed to tell her friends at school why she needed to leave early every Monday afternoon.

Boy was I off base.

Not only did my daughter love going to speech therapy every week, it became a tremendous source of pride for her. She loved having a challenge that she could clearly identify and then – with a bit of elbow grease – overcome. She poured over the exercises the speech therapist sent home. As the weeks wore on, she mastered “ch” then “sh” then “zh” then “j.” And while we never quite fully nailed the “s,” the therapist is confident that with the progress she’s shown so far, if we wait a little while and come back to it, she’ll master that as well.

So we put it aside, a bit wiser for the wear.

Fast forward to this summer when we watched not one, but two movies back to back in which a major character has a lisp. The first was The Music Man, a film whose praises I believe I’ve sung before. In this movie, the character of Winthrop – played by a very young Ron Howard (of Opie and then Richie and now Famous Director fame) – is so stymied by his own lisp that he barely speaks to anyone outside his family. (Take a look at Howard and co-star Robert Preston singing  Gary, Indiana.) My daughter was so taken with this film that she began requesting that I sing “Wells Fargo Wagon” every night before she went to bed, just so she could sing the part where Winthrop lisps.

Then we went to see Night At The Museum:  Battle At The Smithsonian. Here, one of the lead adult characters – Kamunrah (played by a hysterically funny Hank Azaria) – has a lisp. This really caught my daughter’s attention. Half way through the movie she leaned over and whispered: “He’s a grown up and he has a lisp!” Following her lead (because I’d learned a thing or two by now), I answered, “Yes, he does! Lots of grown ups have lisps.” She was positively enchanted. The next morning she took out all of her “s” work from her speech therapy folder and insisted that we begin working on it again.

This experience was instructive for me on so many levels. First, it reminded me that – as with so many things – we end up learning so much more from our children than they do from us. For me, the lisp was a weakness to conceal. For her, it became a source of empowerment.

Second, it also reminded me that one of the hardest things to learn as a parent is how not to burden your children with your own issues.

Finally, I got to re-memorize the lyrics to “Wells Fargo Wagon.” Imagine my delight!

*****

Sorry, folks, it’s been a short work-week so my Friday pix will have to wait. If you want to catch up on my “must reads,” head on over to Twitter, where I tweet them all week long at:  http://twitter.com/realdelia.

Not on Twitter yet, you say? Use this as an excuse to sign up!

Image: Wells, Fargo Wagon by ViperWD via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes: Sometimes You Just Need to Make the Bold Move

No. I don’t have a jammed keyboard. That title is a reference to the famous David Bowie tune.

I’ve been thinking about change all weekend – and how we come to make the big changes in our lives.

It started when I had coffee with a friend whom I rarely see anymore. She showed up with her husband and before we even ordered, she glanced over at  him and asked: “Do you want to tell her or should I?”

I glanced furtively at her belly, wondering if she might have some”news” to impart. (My own personal rule: never ask someone if they’re pregnant unless you literally see the child’s head crowning with your own eyes.) But she didn’t look pregnant. She did, however, look extremely happy so I ruled out life-threatening illness or death of loved one.

“Go ahead,” her husband said.

“We’re moving to the coast,” she announced. She was positively beaming.

“The coast” in this case is Cornwall – a beautiful section of rural England that runs along the Southwest coastline. This couple has owned a second home there for years, in a small village right by the sea. The town is about as different from London as you can get:  there’s one main street with a few restaurants, a one-room library and a school.

In other words, this wasn’t just a “let’s pick up and go to the burbs” kind of move. We’re talking Green Acres. You know – chickens, foxes – that sort of thing. They’d already sold the house in London (the very one they just spent nine months re-furbing) and were set to complete (close) by July 31.

What was amazing to me was how quickly they’d arrived at this life-altering decision. They were driving around Cornwall one afternoon in April, saw a “for sale” sign and thought it would be fun to take a look. A few hours later, they made a bid.

“But didn’t you agonize?” I asked. Much as I myself am a big believer in change, I’d have to do a lot of thinking before making that dramatic a shift in lifestyle.

“Not really,” she answered. “We drove to a café and sat down and thought about what we wanted out of life. And we realized – why wait until we’re 60 to have the kind of life we want when we could have it right now?”

Why indeed?

What they came to realize was that, as lovely as their life in London was “on paper” – big house in a nice neighborhood, three children happily ensconced in excellent local school, weekend getaway – the financial pressure to maintain that lifestyle meant that they didn’t spend nearly as much time together as a family as they wanted. In particular, their hectic schedules meant that rather than spending time outdoors  – something that was particularly important to my friend’s husband – they spent almost no time at all enjoying nature.

So they decided to cash it all in. Literally. The sale of the London house will more than pay for the entirety of the new home in Cornwall. And because both primary and secondary state (public) schools are excellent there, they won’t have to pay private school fees until university. Best of all, both of them will now telecommute 3-4 days a week, freeing up an awful lot of time to just…hang out.

I was truly impressed. As we get older, I think many of us live with a sort of “deferred gratification” model of adulthood: someday we’ll lead the life that we want. But in the meantime, it’s so much easier to just stay right where we are (same house, same job, same neighborhood) that we don’t pause to think about what a change might look like.

Of course, sometimes change isn’t called for because we like where we are. And sometimes it’s just not feasible for all sorts of reasons. But sometimes, you just need to be willing to make a bold move when an opportunity presents itself, like – literally – seeing a “for sale” sign on the road. And you just dive in and see what happens…

Image: For Sale Broker by Neubie via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Untangling My Ipod: Why I'm Not a Lifehacker

I posted last Thursday about my new-found fondness for self-help manuals.

But I realized over the weekend that there are limits to my self-help tendencies. Specifically – and you heard it here first – I am not a life hacker.

What is a life hacker, you ask?

Wikipedia tells us that “lifehack” was originally a computer term that referred to productivity tricks programmers devised to cut through information overload. Over time, however, it’s come to refer to anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.

The reason I know that I’m not a lifehacker is because I’m married to one. I’ve blogged before about my husband’s fondness for household gadgetry here and here. He’s also been known to email me instructions for how to achieve the best “tamp” on one’s espresso, as well as videos for how best to employ our new George Forman Grill (which – it bears saying – is the kitchen-appliance equivalent of a life hack all by itself. Once you’ve grilled a chicken breast on one of those babies, you’ll never go back to a frying pan. Trust me.)

It’s not that I don’t appreciate all of these lifehacks. They are – indisputedly – useful.  Take this one, for example. It’s a video – courtesy of my husband, natch – that shows you how to roll up Ipod headphones without getting them all tangled…because, hey, we’ve all been stuck there, right?

No really, we have. It’s just that my personality is such that rather than track down the information needed to figure out how to do this properly, I’m inclined to just shove the headphones back in the drawer the way I found them – and then untangle them the next time. And he’s not. And I think there are a lot of me’s – and him’s – out there. It’s just one more way that the world maps itself onto the whole boxers vs. briefs thing.

The reason that I got to thinking about all of this recently was that I finally killed off another lifehack in our home:  the dreaded home seltzer dispenser. We first spotted these on a trip to Israel a few years back and they seemed like such handy little doo-dads. After all, I hate tap water and will drink it only under duress. But buying sparkling water is so expensive…and environmentally unfriendly…and possibly cancer-inducing…that I just thought: right! No more bottled water! We will do this ourselves! (OK, it was actually my husband’s idea. But I was totally on board).

And because he’s a classic over-buyer, we purchased like 512 of the little CO2 cartridges

Much as I tried, however, I grew to I hate our little home carbonation scheme. I hated having to fill the syphon with filtered water. And I hated that, as you neared the bottom, it lost all carbonation. And I hated that it didn’t taste like the nice sparkling water you could buy in stores.

And so this weekend – 512 cartridges worse for the wear – I finally broke down. “I think I’m going to go back to store bought water,” I told my husband, my eyes cast downward.

And much to my astonishment, he didn’t object.

“That’s OK,” he said. “I understand.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. And then, just as I found a spot for the syphon in the back of our closet, I stumbled upon…but what was this? A small device for removing the seeds of an apple. (Unlike…um…say, a knife?)

Oh no!

*****

Speaking of lifehacks, the Guardian has a hilarious article in today’s paper about “household objects we’d like to see.”

Image: Headphones by JBelluch via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Revealed Preferences: Why You (Really) Don't Have Photo Albums

Judith Warner had a nice post the other day on her blog, Domestic Disturbances.

The topic was expectations.

In recounting three different conversations she’d had that week, she’d come to terms with the fact that there were several areas in her life where she just wasn’t doing what she “ought” to be doing:

The weeds choking the garden. The hundreds of digital photos that no one has ever seen. The kid-art that hasn’t been hung. All these undone things, all these instances in which I Fail to Meet Expectations (according to the imaginary report card I update every day), derive their urgency for me from the sense that, if did meet performance standards, then I would be living my life to the fullest.

I could relate. I, too, walk around with what I call my “Panel of Elders” – a semi-circle of aging wise men who collectively monitor my every move. The Supreme Court meets Mt. Rushmore, if you will.

And there’s a lot to be said for Warner’s punchline:  that we just need to let go. Stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and all that.

Amen, sister.

Upon reflection, however, I think that the take-away point here extends beyond just lowering the bar. I think it’s also about being honest with ourselves about what we really enjoy and letting the rest fall by the wayside.

Economists have a wonderful concept – revealed preferences – which, in layman’s terms, means something like: “What you want is revealed by what you do, not by what you say.”

To take one of Warner’s examples, I actually know plenty of people who keep up-to-date photo albums or figure out some ingenious (and eye-catching) mechanism for storing their kids’ art projects. I’m just not one of them. Having never been a terribly “crafty” person, I just don’t like that sort of thing. (Which may explain why my own kids’ art projects currently spill haplessly out of a makeshift cardboard box. From time to time, rather than sort them out I simply dump a few into the trash, at which point my 5 year old invariably fishes them out as proof that I don’t really love her.)

By the same token, I always feel like I should be doing some combination of:  taking an art appreciation course…deciding what religion I ought to be…learning how to swim properly…re-reading the bible (Thank heavens David Plotz already has that last one covered for me.) The list goes on.

But when I’m honest with myself about who I really am (every third Thursday of every second month in leap year), I  recognize that I don’t actually enjoy most of those things. Or at least I don’t enjoy them enough to already be doing them. Or I would be.

So the next time you find yourself at war with your super ego over that avant garde French Film course you really should be taking (Is that just me??) – catch yourself and just say “no.” Or simply: “I don’t prefer.”

Image: Hand Made Photo Album by bettysoo via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips for Adulthood: Five Things I Learned From My Grandmother

Each Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. This week’s list comes from my late Grandmother – Grandma Boylan – a wizened old Irish lady with a quick wit and often acerbic tongue. She died about 15 years ago, but  in my family we all still quote her regularly. Here are some of her favorite maxims for everyday life:

1. Hunger Makes Good Sauce. This is the most intuitive of the lot:  if you’re starving, you’ll eat anything.

2. An Hour Before Twelve Is Worth Two After. I don’t think that this one really hit home until after I was in my 30s (which was perhaps around the time that I stopped routinely going to bed after midnight). But Lord knows it’s true. No matter how many hours you sleep, you’ll feel twice as badly in the morning if you go to bed after 12.

3. Smarty Had a Party and There Was No One There But Smarty. Translated: Don’t be a wise-ass.

4. Go Ask Peter on Duck St. I have no idea where this expression comes from. It means “How should I know?” as in: “Grandma, where are the keys?” To which she would reply: “Go ask Peter on Duck St.” when she had no clue.  Fair enough. But who is Peter? And where is Duck Street?

And my all-time favorite:

5. Live Horse, Eat Grass. My father and I puzzled over this one for years. She said it all the time, and we had no earthly idea what it meant. And then I was reading the book No Country for Young Men by the Irish author, Julia O’Faolain, and right in the very first chapter, she used this expression in a way that caused me to finally understand it. It’s actually meant to be said as follows: “Live, Horse, and You’ll Eat Grass” – i.e., if you’re patient and keep your head down, you’ll eventually get what you deserve.

So there you are. And I am off to Finland as we speak. See you Monday.

Hei Hei.

Image: 12 o’clock by Nsub1 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Finishing a Major Task: What Charles Dickens and I Have in Common

I completed a major milestone yesterday. I’ve been working on a big project for the past couple of years and yesterday, I finally sent it out to a bunch of agents. It was one of those photo-finish endings that had me kneeling in a corner of the local post office with about 12 different piles of material, a bunch of bubble-wrap envelopes, a handful of rubber bands and a magic marker, furiously checking and double-checking that the right material was going to the right agent (which did nothing to endear me to the officials at said post office. Suffice to say that like most things British, the whole “leg room” concept has yet to take hold, even in post offices…) There was also an enormous queue, so that I had to stand there for like 20 minutes clutching my 12 packages, literally sweating, as I waited to send them off.

But once I mailed it all off, instead of feeling gleeful, joyous, ebullient, ecstatic…(Help me out here, guys. What are other synonyms for happy?)…I felt oddly…deflated. I came home and sat down on the sofa and didn’t know what to do with myself. Gretchen Rubin, of Happiness Project fame, talks about the arrival fallacy to capture the notion that we all think that once we hit a deadline/meet a goal/cross the proverbial finish line, the clouds will part and suddenly happiness, relief, satisfaction etc will rain down upon us. Not so. At least for me, the opposite is usually true: I find myself missing the purpose and momentum that preceded the deadline, uncertain over where I’m headed, and nervous, already, about how said project will fare. In short: there is no joy in the achievement. Only a sense of loss and anxiety.

I shared these feelings with my sister, who said I was in good company. Apparently, Charles Dickens reported something similar when sending out David Copperfield.

Of course, the solution to all this, as Rubin and others will tell you, is to take more joy in the process than in the outcome. To learn that the game of life, to quote a cheesy phrase, is all about the journey and not about the destination. Easy words to say; a simple concept to grasp; an almost impossible goal to achieve. But one of those eternal lessons of adulthood, nonetheless.

So I soldier on, endeavoring to take more joy in the doing. In the meantime, I’m trying to come up with a list of other ways that I might possibly compare myself to Charles Dickens. Let’s see. He lived in London, there’s one…Hey! Maybe this is what I should spend my time doing today as a cure to the post-finish-line blues…

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Life is Not a Crew Race

As I sit here at 8 pm on a Thursday night, determined to get a post out before beginning my nightly ablutions, I am reminded of something  a friend once told me that had great resonance for me: “Life is Not a Crew Race.”

He was right. It’s more like a marathon.

My friend was talking about graduate school, and the fact that you couldn’t think about pursuing a PhD (something we were both doing at the time) as a short term project or you’d never get anywhere. Rather, you had to think of it as a long term investment and understand that the payoff would be deferred.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because when I began this blog, “blogging every day”–or at least every week day–was one of my resolutions. I’m a pretty self-disciplined sort, so I thought it would be no problem. And it wasn’t–for the first two days. And then a massive, unexpected family crisis unfolded that had me on a plane to New York within three hours of booking my flight (I live in London, so this was not a trivial journey). And there went post number three, disappearing into thin air somewhere over Iceland (or was it Greenland? Note to self: must learn names and locations of Northern island countries.)

And though I’m SO GLAD I went to New York, and SO GLAD that I have the sort of career where I can drop everything and run to the nearest airport when I need to, I also felt this nagging sense the entire time I was there that I was letting myself down. That I’d committed to something and failed to follow through. And because when things like this happen I often go on what another friend calls a “death spiral,” before I knew it I had death-spiralled down to the end of the blog…to the end of my career as a writer…the end of, well, everything. In like five minutes. I was dead.

And then I remembered this quote from my friend and I took a deep breath and I felt a bit better. Because while this new blog is really important to me and something that I don’t want to let fall to the wayside (and while I’m at it, please do give me credit for not beginning this post with the all-dreadful “Sorry it’s been quiet here for awhile…”), it’s also important for me to recognize that sometimes life really does intervene and things more important than–egads!–RealDelia.com will take over and supercede it.

Because if there’s one thing that I do know, it’s that writing–blogs, fiction…heck, just about anything worthwhile–really is a marathon. It’s something you build upon, and improve, and experiment with every day. And if I just think about this blog as a giant 26 mile run around a city (any city, but let’s pick Washington DC for the moment, since I once ran a lame-o 5k there many moons ago) rather than a sprint/crew race/pick your athletic poison, then I know that having missed three days of posts does not mean that I’ve lost the entire race.

In fact, I’ve just begun…

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