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Emotional Affairs Are Not a Real Problem

(Here Are Five Real Problems)

I’ve been coming across a lot of articles about emotional affairs, and they give me the heeby-jeebies. I find the “emotional affair” to be a vague and unhelpful concept, whose primary function seems to be introducing an extra helping of paranoia and guilt into our relationships.

Articles like this one (and this one) remind me of articles on fad diets: they start by convincing you that there’s a problem (“Are you having an emotional affair?”), and then they offer you a solution that is vague, unscientific, and likely to create more problems (“You need to work on your marriage!’”).

So, no. I don’t think emotional affairs are a real problem. If they seem like a problem, I’d wager that you probably have bigger problems – and probably not the problems you’d expect.

What’s It To Me

Let me start by offering some fun facts about my life. I’m married, and have been with my husband for nine years. We’ve gone through periods of monogamy and periods of non-monogamy (the explicit and consensual kind). I’ve had previous long-term relationships too, mostly monogamous.

I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated. Both were revealed, and both hurt like hell. I don’t take infidelity lightly, and I don’t recommend it.

That said, it should be mentioned that I am something of a libertine. I love sex, I fall in love easily and often, and I find both experiences to be major sources of inspiration. I am a professional writer (of songs as well as prose), and I make inspiration a pretty high priority. 

None of this is news to my husband.

Real Problem #1: You can’t ask Vogue whether you’re cheating, you have to ask your partner.

I know, nobody wants to hear this. It’s a lot more comfortable to read articles about relationships than it is to actually have one. But in case you do want to have an adult human relationship, you’ll need to rip the band-aid off and have an uncomfortable conversation. (Helpful tip: you’ll need to do this again later, so you might as well start practicing.)

You need to have this conversation with your partner because there is no universal definition of cheating. Nothing is cheating unless you and your partner agree that it’s cheating.

For example: if I have sex with a man who is not my husband, it’s not cheating, unless I keep it a secret from my husband. Those are the agreements we’ve made, so that’s what cheating is to us.

On the other hand, I’ve heard of relationships in which emailing with a person of the opposite sex was considered cheating. I wouldn’t agree to that definition of cheating (and don’t recommend it), but presumably they did, so that was cheating for them.

It’s important to make these agreements with your partner not only because you don’t want to accidentally betray their trust (or vice versa), but also because you need to be sure that you can consent to playing by each other’s rules. If you can’t come to a mutually satisfying agreement, you should break up.

For example: if I want to be sexually monogamous, but still want to be able to cuddle with my friends, I need to be explicit about that with my partner (ideally before it becomes an issue). Ditto if I have a definition of monogamy that excludes opposite-sex emails. 

And if I want “emotional monogamy”; I need to define those terms with my partner. What do I do if I find myself attracted to someone else? Can we meet in groups? Can we meet alone? Can we hug? Can we text? 

If you consider emotional affairs to be a form of infidelity, their parameters need to be defined and agreed upon by both partners (just like physical infidelity). If you can’t define it and ask for it explicitly, you shouldn’t expect it from your partner.

I realize that most people don’t carry around a bulleted list of their needs and desires. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation early and often. Talk about it when you first start dating, again when you feel jealous, and again when you find yourself attracted to someone other than your partner (yep, that was a when, not an if). Negotiate the terms, and when you get new information, re-negotiate them. That’s your best shot at avoiding betrayal.

But before you get too comfy, take note…

Real Problem #2: You can’t avoid betrayal.

Here’s the stone-cold fact: if you’re in a committed relationship, no matter how compatible and loving and communicative, you are going to hurt each other. You may be able to avoid sexual infidelity (if you’re one of the lucky 25-50%), but there are many kinds of betrayal, and you can’t avoid them all.

You’ll expect something that your partner can’t or won’t provide, you’ll disagree about something that feels like a fundamental value, you’ll leave the milk out (which your partner, apparently, interprets as proof of your black and callous heart). In the best case scenario, you’ll get along famously, until one of you dies, leaving the other cold and alone in the big, scary world.

This is one of those grown-up truths that rom coms don’t like to acknowledge: like condoms, and cellulite, betrayal is part of being an adult person. There’s no escaping it. We are all, at bottom, alone. So let’s all put on our big-kid pants, take a deep breath, and move on to the next problem.

Real Problem #3: You are separate, autonomous people.

Here’s my biggest beef of all with the “emotional affair” narrative. It seems to me that as two grown-ass people, with two distinct sets of feelings and desires, it’s very likely that you will both be happier if you allow each other to seek some intimacy, inspiration, and satisfaction outside of the relationship.

I can almost feel you rolling your eyes, saying, “sure, the nonmonogamist thinks we should be intimate with other people!”, and I’ll admit it, I am probably biased. But bear with me for one more minute.

I have a studio in our backyard. It’s about 8x10’, it’s painted pink, and I call it “The Watermelon”. It’s where I do all of my writing, most of my reading, and a large percentage of my thinking and feeling. If you asked me to name the #1 source of joy in my life – the thing that makes me feel connected and whole and at peace- I wouldn’t choose my husband. I also wouldn’t choose any of my lovers, or friends, or family members. I would choose my watermelon.

Is that a betrayal?

Clearly not. My watermelon makes me happy, and without it I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner. Also, my husband built it for me, so I’m pretty sure he’s OK with it (not just OK, actually, but delighted to support my happiness and well-being. More on that later).

But that’s an easy one, because The Watermelon is not a person.

So how about this: I have several close male friends who are musicians. We spend hours upon hours together talking about music in great detail, listening to records, and going to live shows. These sorts of activities aren’t generally much fun for my husband, and he doesn’t have the kind of musical background that makes them so much fun for me. So, I’m getting something from these male friends, to whom I may sometimes be attracted, that I don’t get from my husband.

Is that a betrayal?

For us, it’s not, because those are the terms we’ve agreed upon. I’m grateful that we’ve come to these terms, because, again, these friendships make me happy, and without them I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner.

But for many couples, I think this is just the sort of relationship that might constitute an “emotional affair”, to one or more of the couple-ees. If you’re part of a couple like that, and you’re down with it, I commend you.

But if you aren’t sure about it, the question is not “are you having an emotional affair?”. That is a stupid, beside-the-point, crazy-making question. Here are some better questions:

  • Are you sacrificing something that makes you really happy in order to be partnered?
  • Are you willing to keep making that sacrifice?
  • Is your partner asking you to make that sacrifice? If so, are they willing to reconsider?

Again, these are not things that Vogue can tell you. They are things that you’ll need to ask yourself, and your partner.

Real Problem #4: Love is not about control.

I think a lot of us could benefit from a more realistic and compassionate view of our partners, and of what we can (and should try to) provide for each other.

In my book, love means looking at a person, understanding who they are, and being willing to support them in becoming the fullest, happiest, and most inspired version of themselves, even if it hurts your feelings.

It’s up to you to decide how much hurt is too much, and whether to renegotiate, or end the partnership. There’s no magic formula. Being partnered means continually trying to balance your own needs with those of your partner. You can’t take too much, and you can’t give too much away.

For my husband and I, getting some of our needs met outside the relationship takes some of the pressure off, so that we can spend less time making demands of each other, and more time enjoying each other’s company.

But in case that sounds scary, let us return to that even scarier fact: you are going to hurt each other. The question is not whether you will be hurt, but how. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we agreed to hurt each other by admitting to our needs, even the scary ones, and negotiating a way to get them met? It’s that, or the usual methods of hurting each other: lying, controlling, martyring ourselves, and resenting each other, slowly and over many years, until we are both hollow shells of our former glory.

Imagine turning to your partner and saying some version of this: “Darling, I love you, and I know you love playing tennis. Because I hate tennis, I hereby grant you permission to have a wonderful time playing tennis with other people.”

For you, “tennis” might be talking about music; or learning to dance; or flirting; or reading historical fiction; or climbing mountains; or yes, having sex. And “hate” might be “don’t have time for”, or “prefer doubles”. And “with other people” might be “by yourself”, or “on the internet”.

Although “tennis” is an excellent euphemism for sex, I’m not advocating for any particular activity, tennis or otherwise. I’m advocating that we acknowledge who we are, and acknowledge who our partners are, and approach our relationships with clarity, candor, and compassion.

Real Problem #5: Your misery will not protect you (so you might as well cut it out)

As you may suspect, there is an inherent danger in these kinds of relationships. There is a danger that I’ll fall in love with one of my music-geekout-partners (not to mention one of my sex partners), and leave my husband for them. Or that I’ll be so happy out here in The Watermelon that I decide never to go back in the house. And, like in any relationship: no matter how careful we are about having scary conversations and making conscious agreements, we might still break them.

But the alternative, if you ask me, is much more dangerous. In so many partnerships, we see two people agreeing - implicitly - to live as a more-miserable versions of themselves, by abnegating needs and desires that they imagine might make their partner uncomfortable. 

And the worst part? The people who make that sacrifice are still not protected from betrayal. Plenty of miserable marriages also end in infidelity. So let’s stop building our relationships on mutual misery, under the false pretense that our misery will protect us.

I don’t know your story, but here’s mine: my husband and I did not become partners to control each other, or to protect each other, or ourselves. We became partners to be accomplices in each other’s pursuit of joy.

It takes courage to find out what that pursuit requires, and to confront it. And as far as I can tell, it takes a continual re-assessment, and a summoning of more courage, over and over, forever.

This kind of partnership is dangerous, and scary, and sometimes hurts. But the alternative is all of those things, too.

And a lot less fun.


This post is inspired by the work of Dan Savage, Esther Perel, and Chris Ryan. Special thanks to my awesome husband. Above photo by Bobby Bonsey.


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Crowdfunding, Panhandling, and the Business of Creativity

I’m running another Kickstarter, and it’s been a rousing success. Yesterday, we met our first goal, in just one week! 

But I don’t want to lie to you, my friends. It’s also been annoying. It’s annoying to my fans (who I’ve been badgering every day for the past week), it’s annoying to my friends and family (who’ve gotten nothing from me but anxiety and terror for the past month), and I’ll admit it: it’s annoying to me, too.

It’s annoying because I really only care about music, not money. And it’s uncomfortable to ask people for money, over and over again! But I know that if I don’t find a way to care about money, and to get comfortable, at least for a few short weeks, I don’t get to make the music that I want to make. 

So, I find the parts that I care about. I care about my fans, for instance: I find them delightful, and kind, and funny. I am constantly moved to find that there are people out there, besides my immediate family, who want to hear (and pay for) my music. This seems impossible and hilarious to me; like learning that your pet rat has become famous on the internet. 

But when my focus begins to drift, I find it heartening to remember that I come from a noble lineage of beggars and thieves. In the broad arc of human history, music has rarely been an esteemed or profitable way of life.

It’s a wonderful way of life, though, if you happen to care only about music.

The History of the Music Industry 

Let’s have a brief recap.

Two hundred years ago, copyright was invented. A hundred years later, jukeboxes arrived. The copyright/jukebox combo made it possible for non-classical musicians and songwriters (henceforth known as “pop musicians”) to collect royalties, and for the first time ever, to be paid beyond one-time fees for their compositions and performances. After that, we got widespread radio, singles, and eventually long-play records (LPs).

So, some time in the late forties/early fifties, we found ourselves in a perfect storm. The war was over, the country was flush, and new technology made it possible for a great number of people to purchase new, original, pop music to listen to in their homes. At the same time, jazz was becoming marketable to white audiences, and rock and roll was a little fledgeling thing, trying out its legs. Suddenly, a pop musician could sell a million records, many of them to people who had no access to a live music venue. The recording industry, as we know it, was born.

Because this is America, a huge and sprawling economy quickly exploded around this new phenomenon, eating everything in its wake. Managers, producers, sound engineers, music promoters, and of course record labels, with their attendant CEOs, A&R men, publicists and secretaries, sprang into existence and proliferated, filling important roles that had never existed before.

Musicians got famous, and famous in an unprecedented way. They required bodyguards, they rode around in cars with tinted windows, they appeared in movies. For the first time in human history, pop musicians (albeit a tiny fraction of them) could be rich, powerful, and well-respected.

At its peak, in 1999, the recording industry created almost twenty billion dollars of revenue in the US alone.

Then, the internet happened, and caused this whole reel-to-reel to reverse itself. The recording industry began to shrink. The long-play record receded back into the mud, replaced once again by the single. Musicians began to lose sales, royalties, and even copyright protections.

In conclusion, the music industry as we know it has existed for less than 100 years, and seems to have peaked about fifteen years ago. Like tulips in Holland, popular music was a fevered craze, which begat an extremely volatile and short-lived industry.

The History of Music

But before that – before the internet, and the industry, and the long-play record, and the jukebox, and the copyright - was there music? Yes.

There has always been music.

The earliest known musical instrument, a bone flute found in Southwestern Germany, is dated at 35,000 years (that’s your entire estimated life span, times 500). And we can assume that the human voice was the first musical instrument, and thus, that music began much earlier. That means that music (and art) existed before agriculture, written language, and of course, money. 

Music predates money by, oh, roughly 25,000 years. If you ask me, conflating the two has been a grave mistake, from which I wish us all a speedy recovery.

The History of Musicians

From what I can tell, musicians have rarely been esteemed by society, and have largely had to beg for food, shelter and money, since the dawn of the modern age. At best, we have been thought of as a kind of monk, whose vocation requires us to eschew worldly concerns (and thus subsist on charity). Mostly, we’ve been thought of as charming accessories to be kept by the nobility, like exotic birds; or more often, as panhandlers and degenerates.

The only historical period for which this has not been the rule was a brief era of fewer than a hundred years, in a relatively small part of the world. If you’re reading this, you were probably born in that part of the world, during the latter part of that era. 


But I implore you, fellow musicians: let us not be so short-sighted as to chalk up the tiny blip of our own lifetime to “the way things have always been”. We are the creative class - we exist outside the economy. It’s our job (more than anyone else’s) to remember our humanity, above and in spite of the economic imperative. 

When even our artists become obsessed by money, humanity has lost its soul.

Musicians today, just like Shakespeare, Mozart, and Robert Johnson, must play at the pleasure of the gentry, play for tips, and do our best to eat free and evade our taxes.

Perhaps this sounds insane to you; it does to many people. If I had ten dollars for every time someone on an airplane, or at a family gathering, has asked me how I plan to make money as a musician, or why I haven’t chosen a more practical line of work (or why I use Kickstarter instead of “getting a record deal” (quotes mine), or why I don’t play corporate events/weddings/covers/lindy hop exchanges), I could stop this Kickstarter campaign right now. 

What we have here, folks, is a failure of imagination. Capitalism is such a powerful psychological concept that people in a capitalist society often fail to recognize the value of anything other than money.

And to me, that sounds insane. So I guess we’ll agree to disagree. 

Making Peace with Panhandling

Kickstarter (and Patreon), in my view, are 21st century tip buckets. I’m here on the street corner of the internet, passing you my hat. If you like what you hear, drop a dollar. If you don’t, move on. I won’t get rich off it, but it will give me another few months of making beautiful things, here on the outskirts of society, for no good reason.

If you look at the amounts I’ve raised on Kickstarter and think that I’m a liar or a hypocrite, let me take a moment to gently correct you. I have been in debt, because of music, for 100% of my adult life. And I didn’t even go to college! 

Since I made my first record at nineteen, whatever money I’ve made from touring, CD sales, royalties, licensing, tips and Kickstarter, I’ve spent feeding myself, fixing my car, and making records. Add to that whatever money I’ve made at my succession of glamorous day jobs (dog grooming, burger flipping, latte-making), or borrowed from my family, or my fans, or credit cards, or banks. Never underestimate the amount of money an obsessive person can spend on the thing they are obsessed with.

My point here is not to have a pity party. On the contrary, I feel that I’ve been incredibly fortunate, in a whole myriad of ways. I love my life, and I love my work. What I want to say is this: I’ve gotten comfortable with debt, and with begging. It hasn’t been hard to do, because I don’t care about money. I also don’t care overly much about pride, or being cool, or maintaining my so-called “artistic mystery”.

I care about music. 

I think e.e. cummings said it best, when he said: “If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little- somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the Making obsession has disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses.”

As for me, I should prefer to make albums, and songs, and mischief, and merriment. If you want to hear the things I make, send me some money. If you don’t, go on your merry way. 

Regardless, I’ll be here on the corner: the wild-eyed monk, with the tin cup, singing.


This post was inspired by the work of Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Milton, and many others. 


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Six Things I Hope I Learned in My Twenties

I turn thirty tomorrow! Here are the things I spent the last decade clumsily learning. I might well continue learning some or all of these til I die, but here’s hoping I’m done. 

1)         Don’t spend time with people who bum you out.

This goes for lovers, friends, colleagues, and even family members. Life is short, and you don’t have time to feel insecure, bored, angry, depressed or anxious. If you habitually feel that way in someone’s presence, locate the nearest exit and run.

Loving someone is not an excuse to allow them to bum you out.

This goes double for romantic partners. Either they need to stop bumming you out, or you need to stop being around them. You do not owe anyone your presence (with the possible exception of your children), and nobody has the right to make you feel bad.

Finally, it’s not important to have a rationalization, for yourself or for the bummer in question, about why you will no longer be spending time with them. Everyone has a right to seek happiness; yours tends to be in rooms where they are not. It’s nobody’s fault and nobody can fix it.

2)         The fear of failure can only be cured by work.

There is only one thing I’ve found that quiets the clamoring of the demons in my head (the ones who tell me that I am an awful talentless boring lazy failure): sit down, pick up the guitar, and work.

Drugs and drinking used to quiet them down, but then I’d wake up and the clamoring was louder. Success, also, seemed like it might work, when I saw it in the distance from the valley below. Now, I’m no rockstar, and I don’t own a yacht; but I do the thing I love and I get paid for it, and I’ve played some really cool gigs and hung out with a bunch of my musical idols. So I tell you this with relish: none of those things worked on the demons either.

The demons don’t care who I’ve opened for or how much I got paid. They also don’t care about any of the work I’ve made in the past.

The only bludgeon I can beat them with is the work I’m making right now, this very minute.

So when I hear them running down the corridors of my mind, scratching the floorboards and chewing the furniture, yipping about every humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me, I go find a quiet room, and I sing. 

3)         You can’t make people like you.

Some people are assholes, some are aliens, and some just aren’t that into you. One of the biggest time-suck mind-fucks I’ve ever stumbled into (repeatedly) is the one where I say, “Wait, you don’t LIKE me?? Well you must not KNOW me very well. What if I do this little DANCE for you? Wearing this gorgeous MONKEY SUIT? I can SING too….”

But alas, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make somebody like you.

Absolutely. Nothing. 

How many things was that, again?

Zero. Not even one thing.

You might as well get a slice of pizza and watch a movie until the sting subsides, then go out and meet somebody who’s not an alien.

4)         Scenes are for suckers.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time imagining what it was like to live in a creative hotbed, like Paris in the ‘20s or Greenwich Village in the ‘60s. At sixteen, I moved into an intentional community in Eugene with a bunch of other musicians and artists. Then I hung out with musicians and dancers in San Francisco, and later Philadelphia, looking for “my people”. Finally, I moved to New Orleans, where (I imagined) the streets were paved with songwriters.

Turns out, all the scenes I’ve ever become involved in have suffered from the same problem: they are petty, and gossipy, and rife with the sort of militant mediocrity that comes from too many people trying too hard to be liked by too many other people.

All of my favorite artists are inspired by a lot of weird quirky things, like some record they found in a junk shop; or a play by a Venezuelan farmer; or a thousand year old poem. They are not overly impressed by fame or hipness, and they are not easily convinced of the quality of whoever happens to be the king or queen of their local scene. They are good at spotting the kind of scenesterism that my friend Milton (quoting Randy Newman) calls “Big hat, no cattle”.

Being fully accepted by a scene requires you to suspend your critical thinking skills in favor of the ‘groupthink’ of your scene. This is the reason so many teenagers get involved in so many nasty, stupid shenanigans. If we are lucky, we grow out of our need to be accepted and liked by our local cool kids, and focus on our need to accept and like ourselves. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t look for people who motivate and inspire you, and offer you a sense of camaraderie and support. Problem is, it’s unlikely that those people will be geographically or psychologically localized. Have the gumption and persistence to seek them out, and be honest with yourself about who they are and are not. 

5)         If you’re worrying about doing it right, you aren’t.

This goes for pretty much anything worth doing: music, sex, writing, dancing, conversation, cuddling, and any kind of creative act. Self-consciousness turns off your heart and ignites the dumbest and most awkward parts of your personality. Trying to connect or create using your worry-brain is like trying to teach a dog to play piano: no amount of focus or persistence will make it happen. You’ve got the wrong guy for the job.

So, when you find yourself having performance anxiety, don’t try to do a better job. Try to stop worrying. Call a time out, have some tea, go for a walk, and start over.

6)         Your insecurities are boring.

All of us are plagued by insecurities, and haunted by their origin stories. Our moms were critical, our dads were absent, we got blindsided by loss and meanness and dumb bad luck. Nobody loved us the way we needed.

Now, we move through the world handicapped by all sorts of fear. We aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or good enough at love or music or hockey. We are bothers and hacks and washed up has-beens. We are lazy and perverted and everyone talks about us behind our backs.

But that’s everybody’s story, and it’s a boring one. Put it to bed and start a new one. 


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