Ask a million people what Valentine’s Day means to them and you’re bound to get a million different responses. It’s anything from a heartwarming day of affection with a significant other to a Hallmark-created aberration. It’s a chance to indulge—in naughty bedroom accoutrements, in chocolate, in the new 50 Shades of Grey movie—or to commiserate. It’s an excuse to finally ask that crush out on a date or to hide on the couch with a good book. The point is that, love it or hate it, all of us tend to mark the day in some personally meaningful way.

Indy writers are no different. For our Love & Sex Issue, one writer needed to get some things straight about how Missoula deals with online dating apps. What better time than the biggest date night of the year to do it? Another wanted to counter-program against all the mushiness of the holiday and unapologetically celebrate the single lifestyle—a rallying cry no doubt shared by many.

Porn and cheating are certainly not part of the usual Valentine’s Day narrative, but they are not unfamiliar topics to those doing the difficult work of maintaining a relationship, and both get covered here. And speaking of the difficult work required to stay with someone for any prolonged amount of time, one writer shares how she and her husband have kept on the same page despite kids, career changes and an entire backseat full of barfed pickles.

These essays are just starting points. Not everyone has cheated or been the victim of cheating, nor dated via Tinder, nor, hopefully, had to take disinfectant to the upholstery of their car during a romantic weekend. That’s why we also extended our usual Street Talk column (page 4) and surveyed locals with questions about love and sex. Their candid answers—in a tree?!— are included across the next three pages and help provide just a little more context to a time of year that has all of us thinking about those we’re with.


The State of the Union

by Sarah Aswell

Each year in February, my husband and I take a romantic overnight trip to a snowy cabin and decide whether or not we want to stay married for another year. It happens exactly one week after Valentine’s Day, on our wedding anniversary, Feb. 21. It’s called the State of the Union.

Historically, the night is part two-person summit and part cheesy date. It requires two sets of typed notes (one set written by each of us, outlining the year in review, plus detailed goals for next year), plus one of those giant heart-shaped frosting-covered grocery store cookies that’s inevitably on clearance after Valentine’s Day. Plus wine.

You seriously do this, our friends ask. With notes? Yes, we seriously do this. With notes.

Over the last seven years, a lot has been discussed and decided at the State of the Union. We’ve each made the final decision to quit a job and try something new, with the other’s support and blessing. We’ve set the goal of buying a house, hashed out budgets and retirement plans, and resolved to get a puppy. We’ve sat up late, giddy, planning big trips to Tokyo, Berlin and Rio de Janeiro. In more recent years, since we started our family (thanks, romantic trip to Berlin), we’ve had long and serious arguments about the fair division of household chores, career sacrifices and how to raise our daughter.

It’s an opportunity to officially reflect on the year we’ve had together. It’s a chance to organize our goals as a couple for the coming year. It’s a special occasion to make sure that we are still connected, unified and on the same page of our marriage. We also usually do a lot of cross-country skiing.

This year’s State of the Union will be a bit different than it’s ever been, though. I’m currently enormously pregnant with our second child and will be just a week shy of my due date on Feb. 21. The pregnancy nixes the overnight trip, the skiing and all but a few ounces of wine, while a gestational diabetes diagnosis nixes one of the few remaining joys of the night: the big grocery store clearance cookie.

On another level, the State of the Union will be different this year because we’ve been married long enough, and been parents long enough, to know that this coming year—our first year of raising two children—will be largely immune to planning. If our first daughter has taught us anything, it is that even two sets of notes couldn’t prepare us for all of the challenges of parenthood, our careers, our relationship and that puppy we decided to get, who is somehow now 7 years old.

It’s very tough for an obsessive planner like me to take in: 2015 will be a year that will resist all of our resolutions, all of our number crunching, all of our attempts at organization, preparation and forecasting. We will have a brand new human living in our house. We will be trying to plow ahead in our professional lives. We will be raising a toddler who recently decided she only likes one shirt of all the shirts that exist on earth. Forget our life goals—what the hell’s for dinner?

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving home from a weekend trip to Glacier National Park. The trip had been a bit of a disaster, colored by bitterly cold temperatures (even for Glacier in January) and an unparalleled toddler-projectile-vomit incident in our car that involved a huge volume of pickles. The weekend had been a depressing illustration of what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men, and outlining our goals for the entire next year seemed extremely, utterly stupid.

“What are we going to do about State of the Union this year?” I asked Ben, trying to breathe through my mouth until we could get home and deep clean the car with Costco-sized amounts of baking soda and vinegar.

“I think we should plan to enjoy the next year,” he said. He reached across the seat and touched that place on the back of my neck. He said we should plan to be patient, to enjoy our family and to remember that it’s going to go by really fast.

It’s a plan that doesn’t need typed notes. It’s a plan that understands that sometimes planning needs to wait. It’s a plan that understands that sometimes simply agreeing to stay married for another year is enough.

America, the State of the Union is strong.


The single side of Valentine’s

by Alex Sakariassen

Ignoring Valentine’s Day used to be easy. One of the perks of being in your early 20s is the abundance of single friends with whom to cast off the shroud of holiday-mandated romance and enjoy the same adolescent shenanigans that make every crappy day seem slightly less crappy. But as those friends gradually abandon the party barge of confirmed bachelorhood and surrender to the tides of commitment, Feb. 14 starts to become more of an annual barstool debate between finally creating a profile and just going home to watch porn.

Due to a couple rather unfortunate pieces of writing over the years, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation in the Indy newsroom for being something of a romantic. And while, yes, I’ve written a whole how-to guide about presenting a “date in a box” to your significant other, someone around here needs to speak up for the holiday haters, of which I count myself a proud member. So log out of Tinder, put down the damn smartphone and listen up, because there are plenty of barstools in the sea. Or something like that.

First off, stop with all this Singles Awareness Day nonsense. The faux holiday may have started as a funny jab at society’s Cupid complex, but the joke has reached the point of self-indulgence. You know who’s already pretty aware that there are single people in the world? Singles. Valentine’s Day won’t remind you of anything that single-serving TV dinner in the freezer isn’t already screaming.

Since Feb. 14 falls on a Saturday this year, there’s always the option to hunker down beneath the covers and simply wait it out ’til the 15th. But why surrender when you could seize the day, hike Waterworks Hill, wax your skis or catch up on those thank-you cards from Christmas? Hiding insinuates you have something to hide from, and that for whatever reason, not being in a relationship on Valentine’s Day is a bad thing. Take a book to brunch. Navigate the hand-holding masses at the Winter Farmer’s Market on South Third Street. Cook a lavish dinner for two, then eat both servings. Own that shit.

Unfortunately, Missoula doesn’t offer much in the way of anti-Valentine’s nightlife. But as local couples enjoy a night in or flock to events like Ten Spoon’s Valentine’s Day Date Night and the Downtown Dance Collective’s tango, you can bet there’ll be additional elbow space at bars throughout Missoula. If it’s solace you’re looking for, you’ll probably find plenty of it dancing with randos at the Union, the Badlander or what Monk’s is billing as a DJ-driven, singles-welcome “Valentine’s Ball.” And there’s always fun to be had in staying home and developing elaborate drinking games to romance-tinged horror films like Love Actually and You’ve Got Mail.

The National Retail Federation estimates couples will spend $18.9 billion on all the Valentine’s Day trappings this year, roughly $190.53 on average for men and $96.58 for women. My biggest expenses will be the $25 bottle of scotch and the $13 plate of sesame chicken I plan to down while watching The Magnificent Seven for the 30th time. Screw Singles Awareness Day. It’s high time we made Feb. 14 a day to toast those great minds in history who gleefully dodged romantic entanglement. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci—famed doodler of weird flying machines and the “Mona Lisa”—had spent his time in line for chocolates at Hallmark instead of in front of a canvas. Or if Isaac Newton had been too busy making restaurant reservations to discover gravity. Or if Beethoven had actually combed his hair for a Valentine’s date.

Now hold that thought while I check this email. Apparently my account has been confirmed ...


A Letter from The Other Woman

by Anonymous

Hi. We haven’t been introduced, but we have a lot in common. I’m the woman your boyfriend cheated on you with. I’m not here to defend what happened, because I made a lousy decision that hurt a lot of innocent people in ways I couldn’t foresee. But I’m here to say that you don’t need to hate me, even though I understand why you do.

On a hot summer night involving a party and cheap booze, I wound up in a compromising position with your boyfriend.

I don’t know why everybody cheats, but I know what happened that night. We sat on the riverbank, your boyfriend took me by the hand and he talked at length about how unhappy he was in the relationship, how he felt trapped and hen-pecked, how you always felt threatened by my mere presence. His sob story came from a place of honesty, but I realize now that it was incredibly manipulative nonetheless.

Making matters more complicated, a long time ago your boyfriend used to be my boyfriend. Drunk and sad, and seeking an old nostalgic feeling, I kissed him back. Almost instantly, I realized that it was a terrible mistake, and I did not love him anymore—but the damage was done, and your jealousy had already become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the days that followed, word got out what happened, and the fallout was not pretty. I got Facebook messages from your family members and texts from strange numbers warning me to “stay away” from him. One person called me a “homewrecker,” which implies that I arrived at that party determined to lure your boyfriend away from his happy home with my magical powers of seduction.

Here’s what I learned from this unpleasant little incident: Sometimes, when people cheat, it is a symptom of unhappiness, and not the cause.

Calling me a homewrecker also gives in to our culture’s poisonous idea that we do not need to hold men accountable for their sexual desires, and that women must be the gatekeepers of sexuality. Saying that I seduced your man with my feminine wiles is the same kind of “He just couldn’t help himself” argument used by people who blame rape victims for the outfits they were wearing (although I am not comparing this event to the trauma of rape, to be clear). I understand that it’s easy and satisfying to blame the bogeyman of the homewrecker, the heartless temptress, rather than take a cold, hard look at the man who has betrayed you.

My mistakes have led to the only bit of relationship advice that I feel confident about, and it’s exactly what I told your boyfriend that night: Being happy and single is infinitely preferable to being unhappily shacked up, and if you make each other miserable, you should not be together. Melodrama is not a sign of all-consuming passionate love; it’s a sign of immaturity and selfishness.

Time has passed since that unfortunate evening, and, wonder of wonders, you two seem more committed than ever. But this is a small town. The other day, I was at the grocery store, reaching for a bottle of vinegar, and said, “’Scuse me,” to a man standing next to me. I didn’t even realize it was your boyfriend until he had already turned and fled. If I’d had a chance to speak, though, all I would say is: neither of you have anything to fear from me.


Softcore memories

by Jamie Rogers

If not for Cinemax, the anxiety I felt about losing my virginity would’ve been too much to bear. I am a natural-born American worrier, which means that I not only despise myself, but I am convinced everyone else does as well. This was particularly true as I approached the age of 16, when sex suddenly seemed like a thing I should do. I was a junior in high school then, and though most of the wounds had scabbed over, the trauma of puberty—pimples, hair, untimely boners—was still relatively fresh. My self-esteem was low, even by my standards. But I really wanted to have sex. And when I finally did get a girlfriend, and it seemed as if my day might actually come, I found solace in one fact: my parents had bought the premium cable package, the one with the movie channels.

I’d watched a lot of porn.

If the idea that an anxious, sexually curious teen could summon courage from lessons learned through porn seems pathetic or sad, get real. Without it, donating all of my skin to a tissue bank would’ve been more appealing than being naked in front of a girl. As I assume is the case for many teenagers, my dad’s attempt at the “birds and the bees” chat consisted of him looking squeamish and me assuring him that I wasn’t having sex. And my middle school sex-ed class wasn’t much more helpful. We learned about basic anatomy, the velocity of swimming sperm and how to unwrap a condom. Worthwhile stuff, but it did nothing to answer the more pressing questions of my pubescent brain. Like how long should it last? What should it feel like? How do you start? I wasn’t equipped to ask these questions. The adults in my life were even more inept at providing answers. Porn, though, did a pretty good job.

This might seem dubious, but this was before the Internet was everywhere. The only porn I had access to aired after 11 p.m. on Cinemax and Showtime. Even by ’90s standards it was softcore. Shows like “Hotel Erotica,” “Passion Cove” and, my favorite, “Emmanuelle in Space,” mostly depicted people getting to know each other. Each episode had three or four 5- to 8-minute-long sex scenes, which were two-parts heavy petting, two-parts missionary, and then a triumphant orgasm, after which the dude always looked astounded and appreciative. I’m not saying porn taught me how the world works—I’ve never torn the dress off a hotel maid or rendezvoused with a barista in the backroom of her coffee shop—but it gave me some clues I wasn’t getting from other places. It showed me what consensual sex between two people looks like, and it made the experience of losing my virginity just scary. Not terrifying.

But that was a long time ago.

Today, I am married to a woman who makes me happy, and who I want nothing more than to make happy. There is no one in the world I would rather have sex with, and I look forward to lots more of it with her. But I still watch porn. We only get PBS and the networks, so I have to go online. What I find is different from the porn of my younger years.

Admittedly, I’m no connoisseur of Internet porn. Like most married people, I usually watch in hurried and clandestine circumstances, but what I find makes softcore seem like rom-coms. No more “Passion Cove” or “Beverly Hills Bordello.” Most of what I see is the kind of sex that can’t be followed by cuddling or even really sleeping. It’s more like take a shower and hope the other person is gone when you’re out. It’s not helpful to me. I’m not getting many applicable tips these days. And it makes me a bit nostalgic for the golden years of my youth, when the world of sex became knowable.


No kid pics! And other dos and don’ts of Tinder in Missoula

by Dan Brooks

People of Missoula: I beg you to stop putting pictures of your kids on Tinder. I know that your kids are an important part of your life. I know that anyone who might take an interest in you will also, someday, take an interest in them. A picture of you with your kids is okay. A picture of just three 7-year-olds holding up a trout is not. Unless you are a fish, I worry that you do not understand what Tinder is for.

Tinder is not just a hookup app. I get that. It started that way—as a hetero version of Grindr, the app that allowed gay men to sort through pictures of other gay men based on proximity. There’s an elegance to that which I accept the straight community of Missoula is not going to achieve. It’s cool to use Tinder as a dating app. It’s cool to specify “just friends” in your profile. It is not cool for that profile to be four pictures of your son in his football uniform.

I don’t want to chat with and eventually meet your son. He and I would have nothing to talk about except our mutual exasperation with you. I am on Tinder to meet adult women who might like to go on dates. As a childless 37-year-old who works from home and lives alone, most of the women I meet are either a) married to my friends or b) in my yoga class. Obviously category (a) is right out, and there’s no way I’m going to jeopardize my transverse abdominal flexibility by trying category (b).

Tinder is therefore a godsend, if god lived in Silicon Valley and survived by exploiting venture capitalists. It allows me to meet women who are neither in love with my friends nor trying to maintain a state of meditative non-attachment. Because it only lets you chat with people who have liked your photo and vice versa, I know that these women are at least mildly interested in my looks. And because interactions on Tinder are confined to text, I am briefly freed from the handicap of my personality.

The only problem with Tinder, at least in Missoula, is how quickly the profiles run out. I am told this is not a problem on the women’s side; as with all Internet dating platforms, the ratio of men to women on Missoula Tinder appears to hover around 10 to one. That’s why every new profile counts. When my screen switches from “there’s no one new around you” to a picture, I experience a frisson of hope. When that picture is a toddler wearing a stegosaurus costume, followed by two youth soccer photos and a dog, hope falls back into despair. And despair lives right next door to resentment.

I don’t want to resent Tinder. We live in a golden age of meeting strangers on the Internet, and Tinder is its Parthenon. Please, don’t let it turn into Facebook.

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