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Casual Love

Friends, put on your flak jackets. It’s time to drop some honesty on yet another uncomfortable topic: love. We use the word “love” to mean a lot of things. Throughout this post I’ll be referring to the romantic kind of love, the kind that usually involves sexual attraction, AKA “falling in love”.

Love: The Shocking Truth  

The truth about love is: it happens. A lot. It happens at appropriate times (like, when you’re in a long-term relationship with someone great), and also inappropriate ones (like, when you meet somebody at a party and have a weirdly awesome conversation and then make out in a bathroom). Love is just not all that concerned with appropriateness.   

We have a mythology surrounding romantic love that says it’s a special, rare feeling, reserved for just a few people in your whole life. It says that love takes time to develop, and that the feelings you experience at the outset of a relationship are not love, but something else (“infatuation”, “a crush”, or my favorite, “twitterpation“ (see Bambi)). It also says that love is generally constant and reliable, and that falling in love is A MAJOR LIFE EVENT, about which SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!   

In summation, the plot of every romantic comedy: if you fall in love with somebody, you better go out and get ‘em - even if they’re already married and they don’t really like you and you’re their stepsister and you’re leaving for a six-year residency in Mongolia in the morning - because you’ll probably love them forever and you might not ever love anyone else.  We are so enamored with this idea that we tend to round some feelings up to love (when you first met the person you later married), and others down to not-love (your weekend fling with a Spanish dancer). The thing is, those experiences feel remarkably similar from the inside.

That Old Feeling

Love is a feeling. It’s hot and fluttery and tingly. I get it in my guts and chest and face. The feeling is accompanied by a series of enthusiastic thoughts, such as “This person is the greatest person ever”, “I wonder how I can make this person feel good”, and/or “I want to climb onto this person and put my face close to their face and smoosh my body onto their body.”   

I have felt this way, to varying degrees, towards probably a hundred different people. Actually, that’s a lie; it is way more. When I was a teenager, I felt it towards approximately three people per day. Lately, the torrent has slowed to once every month or three (I am a bit of a love-fiend, I know. I don’t think such frequency is average.) And I’m married!    

And speaking of being married, yes, I do experience this feeling towards my husband. It feels different now than it felt when we first met: softer, warmer, with more comfort and less urgency. But the love I have for my husband is surrounded by a bunch of other feelings and thoughts that are much rarer than love, in my experience. These include: a deep mutual understanding of and appreciation for each other’s personalities, values, and quirks (e.g.: he finds my love-fiendishness endearing); years of shared experience; a lot of conversations about the kind of future we’re aiming for; and plenty of similar tastes and preferences (e.g. New Orleans, humor, dogs, dark chocolate, Ray Charles, The Daily Show, preferred frequency of house cleaning/travel/sex).    

But underneath all that is the same feeling: love.   Instead of trying to deny it, or ignore it, or call it something different in each different situation, I want to call it like I feel it: I’m in love. I’m in love with my husband, several of my friends, most of the musicians who move me (including some who are dead, such as Chet Baker, who would sympathize), and a handful of people I hardly know but have had good conversations/dances/make out sessions with. I fall in love all the time.    

And really, it’s no big deal. It’s actually kind of fun, once you get used to it.  

I love you. NBD.

The kids today are having a casual sex revolution. “Hookup culture” is akin to “free love”, but with more condoms and fewer hallucinogens. And I’m for it! In case you haven’t heard, I like casual sex. It’s my observation that as casual sex becomes more acceptable behavior (for men and women), it lessens the shame and anxiety associated with the sex that people are having anyway (and have been having since the dawn of time, and are going to keep having). I’m thrilled that young people are beginning to feel they have the option of exploring sex, safely and consensually, outside of the boundaries of long-term commitment.    

But why not have the option of exploring love, too, with or without a side of commitment? If we can agree that our bodies are not inherently dangerous, can’t we do the same for our hearts?   

I suggest we take a page from the casual sex book here. Let’s lift some of the weighty grandiosity off the shoulders of love, and allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.


Imagine if you could say to a casual partner, “I love you. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you’re The One, or even one of the ones. It doesn’t mean you have to love me back. It doesn’t mean we have to date, or marry, or even cuddle. It doesn’t mean we have to part ways dramatically in a flurry of tears and broken dishes. It doesn’t mean I’ll love you until I die, or that I’ll still love you next year, or tomorrow.”   

Then later, perhaps over brunch, you could tackle the question of whether there’s anything to do about it. All of the aforementioned - dating, marriage, cuddling, etc - are options, and there are an infinite number of other options (Skee ball, sailing around the world, double suicide). These are all things you can now choose or not choose, as two conscious, adult human beings. The important distinction is that none of them is implied just by saying the word “love”.  

The Point  

There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of “love” from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of “commitment”. For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I’ve tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.  

The big advantage for the lover

is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we’ll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We’ll throw a lot of expectations at them (“Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!”), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We’ll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.   

The big advantage for the beloved

 is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it’s super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that’s not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it’s the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. 

If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say “thanks!”, and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can’t eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.   

If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn’t collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn’t feel so personal. If it’s not mutual, so what? If it doesn’t turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef’s Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef’s Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? 

No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.  

And here’s my favorite part: if love is casual - not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable - we all get to feel more love, and share more love.   

Sounds lovely, right?   



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Sexuality is a Superpower.

Yesterday, along with about a million other people, I read this blog post. In it, “Mrs. Hall”, a Christian mother of teenage boys, cautions teenage girls against posting pictures of themselves on social media wearing “skimpy PJs” or “only a towel”. And by “cautions”, I mean patronizes, berates, and shames.   

The post, thankfully, was subject to a swift and glorious backlash. Some friends and I posted a series of photos on Facebook and twitter in protest (see below - then make your own - #solidarityselfie). 


I was pleased to see other bloggers writing thoughtful responses, many of which emphasized the idea that it’s not a young woman’s job to keep young men from thinking about her in a sexual way; it’s a young man’s job to learn how to look at women without objectifying them.   Although I think that’s a valid position, and certainly less damaging than the original post, I don’t think it addresses my biggest problem with this all-too-common worldview. I will attempt to do that here.  

I think both arguments (“girls shouldn’t wear skimpy clothing” and “boys should control their lustful feelings for girls”) stem from a shared paradigm: “Sexuality is dangerous, and we must protect our children from it.” 

Here’s how I hear it:

  • Mrs. Hall: Women’s sexuality is dangerous to men. “Some young men are fighting the daily uphill battle to keep their minds pure.” 
  • Nate Pyle: Men’s sexuality is dangerous to women. “Discipline yourself to see her, not her clothes or her body.”
  • Me: Sexuality is not dangerous.

Yes, I understand that bad things happen to people because of sex. Rape, sexual abuse and molestation, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, physical and emotional damage of every flavor and variety are real and present dangers of unchecked sexuality. I’m not interested in sugar-coating the issue.

  I’m interested in this idea: the experience of ourselves and other people as sexual beings is not inherently dangerous. Nor is it shameful, or shallow, nor does it rob us of the ability or opportunity to engage with people in other ways. The act of expressing our sexual selves can be empowering, fun, and pleasurable. The act of experiencing someone else’s sexual expression can also be empowering, fun, and pleasurable.    

Furthermore: sexuality is a built-in part of the human experience, and there is no avoiding it. It doesn’t matter how conservatively you dress, how hard you pray, how much “discipline” you have, or how many teenage girls you block on Facebook. Sexuality is everywhere – within you and without you.    

So, here’s what I want to say to teenage girls, and boys, and people of all ages:

Your sexuality is a superpower.  It can be a force for good in your life, and in the lives of others. Just like your intelligence, your ambition, your talent, and every other aspect of yourself, it’s one of the things that makes you who you are. It’s not a weapon; it’s a gift.   From there, we still need to do our damnedest to educate our children about how their actions affect those around them.

Just like it’s wrong to use your intelligence to harm someone else, it’s wrong to use your sexuality to harm someone else.

We have to teach our kids about kindness, compassion, and personal responsibility, and how those values relate to every area of life. 

I’m not saying these lessons will be simple; I’m saying just the opposite. Unfortunately for Mrs. Hall, these lessons will be messy, uncomfortable, and complicated - there are no shortcuts.


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On Jazz, My Record, and Kickstarter

So, I just ran this Kickstarter campaign. It went well. I asked for $29k to make a jazz record, and I raised over $60k. I had nearly 1300 backers, many of whom were brand new listeners, who discovered me via the campaign. A huge number of these backers were international (holla, Aussies!). After hitting my “true goal” of $34k (that’s how much I was looking for to fully fund the record), I added “stretch goals” to fund a PR campaign, a national full-band tour, and a solo tour in Australia.

In short, it was nuts. The likelihood of somebody in my position raising that amount of money on Kickstarter is quite slim. Thus, people have been asking me how I think it happened. Here are my thoughts.

1) I found an audience for my record, and I spoke to them directly.

Part I, The Record: This is a record I’ve been wanting to make for most of my life. I’m extremely passionate about jazz music, and relatedly, about the plight of jazz in contemporary America. Although it’s hard to pin down accurate and up-to-date numbers (you can’t believe everything you read on the internet), jazz currently holds around 3-5% of the American music market share. At the same time jazz has been losing listeners, its listeners are aging. The average age of a jazz fan in the US is around 50.

In short, jazz is going the way of classical music. It’s becoming a genre for well-educated, high-class, mostly old, mostly white people to listen to in concert halls.

Now, obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Two of them are notable, considering the crowd that is probably reading this post: if you’re a swing dancer, you probably love jazz. If you live in New Orleans, you probably listen to live jazz regularly. But let me gently burst the tiny bubble that we’re all living in: if you took every swing dancer in the US, and put them in a room with every single man, woman and child in New Orleans, you’d have maybe 400,000 people. That’s less than .2% of the US population. Add in every working jazz musician in the rest of the US, and you’d have - maybe - the population of Omaha, Nebraska.

So, regardless of your personal feelings about jazz, the amount of passion you have for it, or the amount of time you spend listening to it, dancing to it or playing it, you have to admit that it’s got a problem.

As a songwriter and song-geek, I have a big fear that the art of songwriting is going the way of, say, basket-weaving. Like, within a generation or two, it will be a quaint craftsy thing that kids do at summer camp; and popular music will be written exclusively by machines and committees. The folks who are currently lauded as the “great songwriters of my generation” do not move me even 1/100th as much as a Gershwin, or a Dylan, or even a Costello. I think songs are getting worse, and I think the waning of jazz in contemporary culture is partly to blame. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dylan and Costello have both listened to plenty of Gershwin.

Every time I meet a young songwriter who’s never heard of Billie Holiday (this happens more than you think), or who compliments me at a show on “that great new song of yours”, and means “Sweet Lorraine”, the fear grows.

So, the kind of jazz revival that I’m most interested in is not of the Esparanza Spalding variety (although I think she’s great), nor is it of the swing danceable trad jazz variety (although I am a dancer myself, and I love a lot of the dance bands who are currently out there). Neither is it of the Norah Jones variety (which is accessible, clearly, but is not quite up to the Gershwin bar in terms of songwriting).

The jazz revival I want to see is of the tasteful pop variety (side note: I firmly believe that those two words are not mutually exclusive). I want to hear more jazz that meets a high standard in terms of songwriting, performance and production quality, BUT that anybody, from any background, can appreciate, enjoy, and get stuck in their head. The kind of record that your average thirteen-year-old girl might pick up, put on, and feel moved by. That way, when that girl starts writing songs, she’ll have some Gershwin knocking around in her brain, along with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Part II, The Audience: So, the way this all relates to the Kickstarter campaign is this: there’s a demand for what I’m doing. Many of the backers I heard from said things like, “I’ve always thought that jazz was too complicated for me.” or, “My Grandparents listened to this music, I haven’t listened to it since I was a kid.”

When I put my campaign together, I made a conscious decision to speak directly to the people who I am making this record for. I wasn’t speaking to jazz musicians, or dancers, or anyone who’s already part of the “jazz scene”. I wasn’t even speaking to the fans I already had - at least, not primarily.

I was speaking to non-jazz-geeks, who want an entry into the world of jazz. As it turns out, a lot of those people were listening.

2) I kept people involved.

I sent updates to my backers every single day. I made them videos, I recorded songs for them, and I wrote epic essays about each song I’ll be including on the record (I plan to post some of those on this blog). I also answered every comment and email that I got over the course of the 30-day campaign. Thus, the people who backed my project felt like I was talking to them, and I was.  At the same time, I posted on Facebook and twitter every day, and did my best to provide new content and/or information every time I posted. I had my friends make cute support videos. I tweeted at people with large fan bases who were also involved in Kickstarter (like Amanda Palmer (who tweeted the project) and Spike Lee (who backed it)). I ran silly contests on Facebook like “if we hit 1000 backers by 12pm I will make a video of myself rolling around like a kitten in a yarn factory.”  

 The risk of all this involvement was wearing people out, and I think some people did get worn out (sorry if you were one of them!). I was willing to take that risk because the advantage was huge: the people who did support what I was doing got really invested in the project. They became super-fans, shared my project with their friends, and made important suggestions about how I could better manage the campaign.  In other words, I was working to make fans, not just money. 

3) I prepared. A lot.

Before launching my campaign, I spent about two weeks reading everything I could find about running a Kickstarter campaign. I also stalked other people’s campaigns relentlessly and stole their ideas. Here are the best resources I found:

Launch and Release - This is a brilliant blog written by two musicians who also happen to smart, down-to-earth, mathy-type guys. They introduce a novel concept to the world of crowdfunding: statistics. In addition to a bunch of really helpful “case studies”, this site offers a “fundability calculator”, which tells you how much you can reasonably expect to raise on Kickstarter (as determined by the number of fans/friends/family you currently have access to.) Do yourself a favor and read this post. *Full disclosure: after reading their blog, I actually hired these guys to help me with my campaign.*

This TED Talk from Amanda Palmer - If you have any feelings of guilt, shame, or hesitancy about asking people for money in exchange for your art, watch this video. OR if you have any inner conflict about asking for gigs, or help, or places to stay. OR if it makes you mad that people steal music and other digital content. Amanda has a revolutionary and brilliant grasp on what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. What she says in this video is absolutely profound.

Here are my favorite Kickstarter campaigns:

4) I am really, really lucky.

That’s just a fact. I can’t explain it, but I am extremely grateful for it. I’m extremely grateful to have friends like Vienna Teng (see below). I’m extremely grateful to have so many outstandingly caring, enthusiastic, and generous fans. Thanks for your support, with this project and all the others.

Post by Vienna Teng.


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