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Vertigo, Bacchanalia, and the Art of the Controlled Burn

How to set your life on fire without blowing it up, and why you might want to.

Vertigo is the wobbly feeling you get on the top of a building (or when you’re sick or drunk), often described as the feeling that you might fall. I’ve always experienced vertigo, however, as the feeling that I might jump. Apparently, psychologists have recently recognized this urge-to-jump, dubbed it the High Place Phenomenon, and determined that it’s fairly common, even among us happy-go-lucky, generally non-suicidal types.

I’ve experienced a similar urge when driving at night (the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic), and when holding a baby (the urge to drop the baby). After brushing up on my psychology texts, I feel confident enough in the normalcy of these urges to share them with you, right here in black and white (even though my sister might read this, perhaps while holding my fresh new gorgeous baby niece). 

I’m not actually going to jump off the building or swerve into traffic or drop the baby (fear not, dear sister!); there’s just something in the human psyche that can’t help but ask: what if you went ahead and ruined everything?

For the purposes of this piece, I’d like to extend the metaphor and say that I also experience vertigo as it pertains to my day-to-day life: the urge to blow up my mental health, my career, my money, and/or my marriage. I’ve thought, “what if instead of warming up my voice before this very-important show, I just drank this whole bottle of Jack?” or, “What if instead of paying my bills this month, I bought this airstream trailer off of Craigslist?” or, “what if instead of going home to my husband, I went home with that greasy-looking drummer? We could start a cover band, right here in Johnson City, and have eight kids, and plant an orchard full of peaches, like in that John Prine song.”

And again, it’s not that I really want to play a sloppy-drunken show, or have eight kids. In fact, I emphatically don’t want either of those things. It’s the vertiginous feeling that the workaday banalities of being a pretty happy person with a pretty decent life could be… spiced up, shall we say… by throwing a nice fat hand grenade smack into the garden party.

The Controlled Burn

A controlled burn is when somebody (usually a farmer or park ranger) sets fire to a piece of land on purpose, as a technique for “land management”. Controlled burns have been used for millennia, by all kinds of people all over the world. Wikipedia says, “controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fire”.

In other words, a controlled burn is a cute little manageable wildfire that people set on purpose, so that their homes and crops won’t be destroyed later by a bigger, angrier, less-manageable wildfire.

So in the spirit of the controlled burn, folks, I’m here today with a proposal. The next time you get that drop-the-baby, bang-the-drummer, hand-grenade-at-the-garden-party vertigo feeling:

What if you went ahead and ruined a few things?

Orgies, Carnivals, and Bacchanalia

Another thing that people around the world have done for millennia is dress up in costumes and go to parties to drink, fight, bang, yell, and sing all night, in relative anonymity.

One of my favorite historical examples of this phenomenon are The Bacchanalia, which became an “epidemic” in Rome around 200BC. According to some Roman guy called Livy (writing a couple centuries after-the-fact), the Bacchic cult - to the scandal of some echelons of Roman society - held “five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes; featuring wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals.”

Sure, we frown upon this sort of thing now. 

But on the other hand, we still have bars, and clubs, and festivals, and internet porn, and sex clubs and theme parks and Halloween. And some of us lucky bastards even have Mardi Gras, which is a direct descendent of the pagan orgiastic traditions of Europe (co-opted and packaged for resale by this other, tres-popular European religious cult called Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it)). What are these things if not modern society’s attempt to contain and mollify those nasty little anti-social urges?

We humans are prone to revelry: drunkenness, violence, sex, shouting, singing, jumping from high places. We’ve tried for millennia, but we can’t seem to quit.

You can dress up us in suits, give us jobs and families to manage, and wedge us into churches and communities, but those urges still crackle just beneath the surface, threatening to burn us alive. If we don’t have a war to spend them on, you’d better give us a Bacchanal, or, by golly, we’ll make one of our own - and it might not be so elegantly contained.

The Bacchanalia, in other words, were a controlled burn.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a much-needed weekend retreat. We had just weathered a fairly major accidental wildfire, and although we managed to escape with most of our valuables, our ten-year partnership was feeling a bit brittle. We rented a cabin, packed up the dogs, and drove to the gulf coast.

The cabin didn’t have wifi or cable, but they had a TV with a primo selection of DVDs such as The Fast and The Furious, Madagascar 2, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 2005 one, not the Hitchcock). So, after eating a lot of gulf shrimp, we hunkered down on the couch and popped one into the player.

In case you’ve forgotten this (admittedly pretty forgettable) movie: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about a married couple who – although they happen to be the hottest human beings on earth (Brad & Angelina, in the role that landed them in an actual marriage) – are deeply ensconced in their domesticity, bored with each other, and no longer having sex.

(I can’t help but wonder, in the aftermath of Brangelina, whether their real-life marriage ever entered the too-bored-for-sex phase. It seems crazy, I know, but you have to admit  the possibility that it did. If that’s not a good argument for the stultifying power of domesticity, I don’t know what is!)

Over the course of the film, we find out that John and Jane Smith are actually both assassins, working for rival firms. Upon discovering each other’s identities, they are assigned the task of killing each other. They don’t, but before we are sure that they won’t, they have literally blown up their beautiful house, their fancy cars, and all their rich-people-stuff, with the extensive secret artillery they both had hidden in the oven/basement/closet. Not that shockingly, destroying their domestic life reminds them that they are married to the hottest human beings on earth, and their passion is re-ignited.

Mediocre though it was, I found myself laughing maniacally throughout the movie, and eventually bursting into tears.

“Bud,” I said (because that’s what we call each other), “I think we need to blow up our house.” 

We’re no Brangelina, sure. But like lots of couples, we’d been lulled by domestic bliss into a kind of stupor, and lost track of the fact that we are both super-sexy assassins. 

A Tiny Hand Grenade

So here’s my proposal.

Perhaps happiness cannot be achieved just by building a perfect domestic life; a life of daily exercise and organic juicing, with zero debt and a “landing strip” by the door with a little basket for your keys. 

Maybe it can’t be achieved even by building a perfect artistic life, full of inspiration and gobs of time to write; the sweet husband, two cuddly dogs, and a little studio in the backyard, with pots of succulents and a hundred-year-old guitar.

Perhaps building these lives of order and comfort will not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, we should be aiming to build lives that can withstand a little Bacchanalia.

I’m not sure what your particular Bacchanalia is, but I know this: it’s not something that falls roundly within the boundaries of domestic arrangements and socially acceptable behavior. It’s not a pedicure, or one Mimosa at brunch on the weekend. It’s something that scares you a little, and probably scares your family and your friends. It’s something ugly and shocking, and tantalizing and indulgent, and maybe confusing and inexplicable. It’s something your heart and body wants that your mind probably can’t fathom.

Do you already know what it is?

I’m proposing that true happiness might be found only by making room for that nasty, scary, shocking thing, right there inside your cute little life.

It’s finding a way to pay the bills and buy the airstream trailer, or (my personal favorite) bang the drummer and go home to the husband. It’s throwing just an ever-so-tiny grenade into the garden party, perhaps the itty-bitty grenade of your true personality and your actual feelings and thoughts, such as ‘fuck this garden party, I’m going home to watch Housewives and work on my dinosaur sculpture’, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, my little wildfires, sometimes something has got to burn. Wouldn’t we be better off if we named it now, and lit it up ourselves, instead of waiting until we are engulfed in flames? 



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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.

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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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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.

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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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