The Wild Oats Project: One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost

The Wild Oats Project: One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost

by Robin Rinaldi

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What if for just one year you let desire call the shots?
The project was simple: Robin Rinaldi, a successful magazine journalist, would move into a San Francisco apartment, join a dating site, and get laid. Never mind that she already owned a beautiful flat a few blocks away, that she was forty-four, or that she was married to a man she'd been in love with for eighteen years. What followed—a year of abandon, heartbreak, and unexpected revelation—is the topic of this riveting memoir, The Wild Oats Project.
Monogamous and sexually cautious her entire adult life, Rinaldi never planned on an open marriage—her priority as she approached midlife was to start a family. But when her husband insisted on a vasectomy, something snapped. If I'm not going to have children, she told herself, then I'm going to have lovers. During the week, she would live alone, seduce men (and women), attend erotic workshops, and have wall-banging sex. On the weekends, she would go home and be a wife. Her marriage provided safety and love, but she also needed passion, and she was willing to go outside her marriage to find it.At a time when the bestseller lists are topped by books about eroticism and the shifting roles of women, this brave, brutally honest memoir explores how our sexuality defines us, how it relates to maternal longing, and how we must walk the line between loving others and staying true to ourselves. Like the most searing memoirs, The Wild Oats Project challenges our sensibilities, yielding truths that we all can recognize but that few would dare write down.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this frank, salacious work delineating her desperate attempt at emotional and sexual liberation, the Scranton, Penn., author and frustrated wife ultimately recognizes that she lost a great deal and gained little. As an editor at San Francisco’s lifestyle magazine 7 x 7, married for 10 years to Scott, a successful, though emotionally opaque entrepreneur (“His erection was solid and dependable, just like him”), dealing with her childhood of parental alcoholism and brutality, and facing childlessness by her mid-40s, Rinaldi resolved to contemplate an open marriage when her husband took the decisive step to get a vasectomy rather than have children. Rather surprisingly, he agrees to the arrangement, and while the couple spends the weekdays together at their shared home near the Castro, Rinaldi gets a studio and begins a dizzying round of dates that fulfill her need for sexual exploration, though she sets firm perimeters in terms of emotional attachment. Luckily, in San Francisco, she notes wryly that “polyamory wasn’t all that rare,” and she gravitates toward the “urban commune” called OneTaste, which conducts hands-on orgasm meditation (OM) seminars for men and women, and where Rinaldi ultimately finds her most satisfying lovers—also women. To her credit, Rinaldi does not hide the dark side to this odyssey—her own jealousy at Scott’s lover, her absolute self-absorption and mendacity—but her ability to grasp its soul-driving necessity without insisting on winning over her readers renders this a notable work of self-knowledge. (Mar)

From the Publisher

Rinaldi yields insights through her willingness to reveal the messy way she muddles through the year... Unlike other recent memoirs in which a woman, finding her life wanting, learns what frightens her and emerges with a stronger sense of self, this one, to its credit, doesn't go for the Hallmark-card ending.” —Elle

“Brutally honest and real . . . Refreshing” —The Daily Beast

“A sexual-awakening romp wrapped in a female-empowerment narrative” —The Washington Post

“If you want to read something about somebody who might be a lot like you, somebody who's brave enough to admit that she doesn't always (or even usually) know what she's doing but she does it anyway, somebody who won't preach at you or make you feel like you have it even less together than you do—then you can't NOT read this book.” —Sara Nelson,Omnivoracious

“A stunning report . . . Readers will be provoked and fascinated by Rinaldi's forthright memoir of daredevil sexual exploration and self-liberation.” —Booklist

“Rinaldi does not hide the dark side to this odyssey . . . her ability to grasp its soul-driving necessity without insisting on winning over her readers renders this a notable work of self-knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly

“A sensitive, intimate and bold story.” —Kirkus

“Robin Rinaldi's horizontal adventures will make you howl with laughter and cry with recognition—whatever the state of your romantic or sex life. And you'll stay up all night reading to learn how it all turns out. Her bravery and introspection are inspiring to anyone who has taken a moment to wonder: Is there more to life than this?” —Amy Sohn, author of The Actress and Prospect Park West

“Her daring project and avid search for passion is a true page-turner. For anyone who's wondered 'what if' or 'should I?'” —Library Journal

The Wild Oats Project uniquely chronicles an intelligent woman's exhilarating pilgrimage into the rest of her life, living as she damn well pleases. And why not? Men have been doing so since the beginning of time. Rinaldi's memoir is groundbreaking, sexy, and a joy to read.” —Suzanne Finnamore, author of Split: A Memoir of Divorce

“Robin Rinaldi's The Wild Oats Project is a daring and enlightening exploration of sexual identity, marriage, and the search for an authentic self. Rinaldi takes the reader on an enthralling journey, one that will not soon be forgotten. The Wild Oats Project is a rich and essential read.” —Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth

“I loved this brave and inspiring book. Rinaldi rejects middle-aged quiescence in favor of living boldly, sensually, and to the hilt. Would that we all were so brave.” —Julia Scheeres, New York Times bestselling author of Jesus Land

“Extraordinarily frank . . . Her book is important because of the way it unashamedly puts the quest for female sexual fulfillment centre stage . . . It is a testament to how far feminism has taken us all that a woman can not only undertake such an adventure but write about it so brazenly. And in a porn-saturated world where, too often, the lens through which we see sex is masculine, her unapologetic account of her search for sexual nirvana is hugely refreshing.” —Sunday Times

“[Rinaldi] seduces us with her candor and vulnerability” —Chicago Tribune

Library Journal

Magazine editor and writer Rinaldi and her husband, Scott, had reached a marital impasse—she wanted kids, desperately; he did not, definitely. Shortly after Scott got a vasectomy, Rinaldi came up with a plan B (or plan S-E-X) for herself. Instead of divorce, more counseling, or throwing herself into charity work, she chose to pursue erotic experiences. As she put it, she didn't want to look back on her life with "no kids and only four lovers." She devised an open-marriage plan, the Wild Oats Project, whereby she spent weekdays and nights at a bachelorette pad, visiting dating websites, having assignations, joining sex workshops and groups, then heading home to Scott on weekends. As one might expect about her best laid plans, things go awry. But the author gets to put a few notches on her bedpost and perhaps find fulfillment and even more self-knowledge at the end of her project. VERDICT While at times the author is exasperating and one might marvel at her husband's patience, her daring project and avid search for passion is a true page-turner. For anyone who's wondered "what if" or "should I?" [See Rinaldi Q&A, p. 116.]—Liz French, Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews

A 40-something journalist's account of her yearlong open-marriage experiment and its consequences.Rinaldi loved her husband, Scott. Though not especially demonstrative, he was stable, kind and had always been there for her. But he had also made it clear that he had no wish to have children and got a vasectomy. With no hope of creating a family and hungry to experience the passion that was missing from her marriage, the author embarked on what she and Scott would jokingly dub the "Wild Oats Project": an open marriage that would permit both to see others outside of their immediate social circle. From the start, "good girl" Rinaldi broke rules and slept with someone both she and Scott knew. After that, she began consulting with seduction experts schooled in the ways of "pleasure, flirtation, sensuality and abundance," advertising for short-term partners on hookup websites and trying out one-night stands with hot young strangers half her age. Her journey eventually led her to OneTouch, an "urban commune" dedicated to the open exploration of desire. There, she met, and slept with, other seekers of sexual wisdom, including one woman with whom she had a lesbian fling and another with whom she had a "girl on girl on boy" threesome. Toward the end of her "project," Rinaldi unexpectedly heard from one of her short-term partners, a man with whom she had fallen in love and who had fallen in love with her. Now fully able to see the limitations in her marriage, she chose to take a chance with her former lover and accept the consequences, both positive and negative. Never apologizing for her actions, the author writes that her project was something that her "soul drove [her] to do," a difficult challenge she could refuse only with the risk of losing the personal enlightenment she was seeking all along. A sensitive, intimate and bold story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374710811
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 888,176
File size: 557 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Wild Oats project

One Woman's Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost

By Robin Rinaldi

Sarah Crichton Books

Copyright © 2015 Robin Rinaldi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71081-1


The Threshold

IT WAS A RARE BALMY EVENING in San Francisco. Raindrops splattered the long windows of the second-floor bar overlooking the Castro, blurring its neon signs and the headlights below. As the city's offices emptied for the weekend, the bar filled, the DJ upped the volume, and the waiter delivered the first round of sweating margaritas. I was the only woman, and the only straight person, in the room. Chris, a friend I affectionately called my gay husband, was chatting with his buddies as I reached into my pocket, grabbed my phone, and hit Paul's name.

I did it without forethought. The few sips of margarita probably helped me along, but in truth, that night was the perfect storm. It was early, my husband knew I was out with my gay friend, and I wasn't due home for hours. That Friday night in July 2007, some part of me—hidden yet willful enough to pick up the phone—felt it had license to do whatever it wanted. While I went about my business, it was tracking, with silent precision, the changes in my marriage down to the day.

What are you up to? I texted.

Just on my couch watching TV.

Can I come over?

Nothing for five minutes. In that span, I vacillated between anticipating the thrill of a yes and the relief of a no.

Yes. 2140 Jackson.

The indigo characters "2140 Jackson" threw off a crystalline charge that snaked up my arm and lit my chest from inside, as if I'd been sent the combination to a bank vault, or plucked the enemy's secret code off the wires.

Needing encouragement, I pulled Chris aside and showed him the text. He was aware of my recent crush on Paul. He also knew and liked my husband, Scott, but in his world—the microcosm of gay male life in San Francisco—couples who'd been together seventeen years, like Scott and I had, didn't necessarily read disaster into casual flings. Many of Chris's friends indulged their attraction to others now and then without seeming to damage their primary relationship.

He looked from the phone to me. "Are you sure?"

"No, I'm not sure at all," I said, my eyes darting toward the door. I slid into my raincoat.

"Listen," he said, holding my elbow like a football coach instructing a rookie on the sidelines. "Go slow. You can stop anytime you want."

"All right. I need to go."

"Text me later to let me know you're okay."

The sidewalk was a sea of umbrellas. I made my way to the curb and shot my hand up, prepared to wait twenty minutes for one of San Francisco's limited number of cabs. A driver immediately flashed his headlights and pulled over. I gave him the address.

I opened the fogged window and looked up at the starless, heavy sky. The pavement shone with moisture as we ascended Divisadero Street, the long hill that separates the eastern and western halves of the city. As the rooftops swished by, I mentally retraced my steps, taking one last chance to reconsider before I ruined my life.

I'd known Paul, five years my junior, for a few years. He'd always flirted, which had seemed harmless enough until about six months ago. I'd invited him and several others to a party hosted by the magazine where I worked, one of those five-star-hotel soirees where the free booze makes everyone giddy. I'd been chatting away when Paul interrupted, lightly placing his fingertips on my forearm. "I think you might be the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he'd said, eyeing me without apology. Because he'd met Scott, and because I knew him to be something of a good-natured ladies' man, I tried not to take his compliment to heart. I was used to being called cute, sometimes pretty. No man had ever called me beautiful. I quickened to it despite myself.

And then, two months ago, as I was packing to leave Mexico after a vacation, Paul sprang to mind unexpectedly. I remembered the precise moment. I was folding my bikini into my suitcase and noting with sadness how rapidly my bikini-wearing days were coming to a close. Even so, I told myself, Paul would kill to see me in this.

Finally, there was another cab ride, just three weeks ago. Paul and I had shared a taxi after impromptu drinks with friends. Once we were ensconced in the cab alone, all I needed to do was sit back and wait. I gave in to the hush that fell over the backseat. I gazed out the window, feeling him watch me. The second I turned to look at him, he lunged, pinning me to the vinyl. His lips on mine. His big hand around the back of my neck. What thrilled me as much as the kiss was how he didn't ask, how his eyes narrowed, animal-like, honing in on my mouth. It lasted only a few seconds. When the taxi stopped in front of my house I quickly pulled away and ran inside, mentally repeating, It was just a kiss.

As Divisadero's rambling storefronts approached and then receded amid the wet sounds of the night, I glanced at the driver's heavy brow in the rearview mirror. I should ask him to pull over. This was a midlife crisis, a cliché. I'd get out, walk through Pacific Heights, and clear my head. I should tell him to turn back toward the Castro and my cozy flat, where my husband waited with a book and a glass of wine.

Perhaps at this early juncture you're already picturing him, imagining some rationale for my behavior: that he was a jerk, that our marriage was sexless. Inconveniently for me, neither was true. Scott had his limits but he loved me, and I loved him.

On the other hand, you might also be thinking this particular cab ride was a simple matter of my being a slut. In fact, with the exception of one very traditional friend, I was the least experienced forty-three-year-old woman I knew, a first-born, over-responsible good girl who'd practiced monogamy my entire life. By "good girl," I don't mean prudish. I'd slept with a few guys—four, to be exact, including Scott—and I enjoyed sex. Neither do I mean especially kind or generous. What I mean is that I was terrified of misbehaving, of causing harm to anyone. My bad deeds didn't come easily and my good deeds were fueled by an overwhelming need for approval. I internalized instead of acting out. Until now.

As the driver turned off Divisadero and headed down Jackson, my phone buzzed with a text message.

Should I open a bottle of wine?

Without hesitating I typed Definitely. My stomach churned with anticipation. I was sailing on a strange new momentum, and the simple fact of its energy, the revelation that some kind of internal velocity was still possible, brought such a surprised joy that I easily let it carry me.

The residential streets at the edge of Pacific Heights were dark and quiet in the rain. I paid the cabbie and stood on Paul's front porch. In the distance, a foghorn bellowed its repetitive warning out in the cold black bay. I raised my hand to the doorbell and paused. I knew that the events of my marriage didn't grant permission for this. And yet a renegade voice cheered me on, assuring me I was past the point of needing permission, that indeed it was time to bend a few rules and see where that got us. Lubricated by half a margarita and a cascade of adrenaline, my brain's shadowy and bright chambers held both sides of the argument in balance.

But my body had lost all interest in Aristotelian logic. It had somehow broken from its usual confines to act on its own for the first time in—how long? I couldn't even remember. Perhaps for the first time ever.

I watched as my finger pushed the doorbell.

Thus began my journey away from the straight and narrow. This chronicle of that journey can be read as either a manifesto of freedom or a cautionary tale. For me, it's a little of both. I'll try to tell it as straight as I can and let you decide for yourself.


Refugee (Sacramento)

I RESISTED SCOTT for months. He asked me to a concert, then to dinner, and when I said no to both of those, to dinner with a mutual friend. I sat shaking through the whole thing because I knew from the moment we'd met three years earlier that he would alter the course of my life. The setting of that first meeting, a sprawling software company in the parched suburbs of Sacramento, belied the sense of destiny unfolding in its midst. His sandy hair brushed the collar of his button-down shirt. I reached out to shake his hand and it flashed through me: sunshine, forest, a peace as deep and still as a summer lake.

On paper, it didn't look promising. He had a girlfriend studying in Spain, though they were technically free to see others. He'd been my boss until recently and we still worked together. His last girlfriend had been married and her husband had approved of the arrangement. I was an open wound and he was invulnerable, the last thing I needed.

In the flesh, I was losing ground. After work, our team would gather for drinks and he'd regale us with stories of hitchhiking from Indiana to California, nearly getting stabbed by a dwarf in Colorado, falling from a beam several stories up on a construction site in Texas. He would certainly have died, he said, if a mysterious voice, an older male with a southern accent, hadn't suddenly spoken in his mind.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said, 'There's a purlin over your left shoulder.' I grabbed it just as the beam fell away."

"What's a purlin?"

"It's like a rafter."

That was notable. He knew the names of things: flowers, trees, parts of machines. And he knew how things worked. On Monday mornings, when we'd all report on our weekends, he'd talk about replacing the transmission in his antique Volvo or laying linoleum in his kitchen at midnight.

He'd grown up along the dunes of Lake Michigan, tall and strong-featured thanks to his German-Scottish blood, cheeks ruddied with a trace of Native American. He looked ten years younger, my age. He owned a tidy little house with hardwood floors, bereft of all furniture except a table and chairs, so full of framed prints it resembled a gallery. He had a cat named Kato and a garden where he grew tomatoes and peaches. He wrote surrealistic short stories with titles like "Mother of Ten Thousand Beings." He quoted Walt Whitman and Epicurus. He kept his old Boy Scout Handbook on his crowded bookshelf, tucked between Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and William Burroughs's The Western Lands. Those three inches of bookshelf sum him up: midwestern, self-sovereign, and below it all, something feral.

He had an MBA and began investing in his mid-twenties. By the time we met it seemed there was nothing he hadn't done, from living out of his car in the Indiana woods to dropping psychedelics to mastering the real estate and stock markets. In the three years we spent as friends before dating, I watched women send him flowers and bake him cookies.

Finally he asked me to drive out to the Sierra foothills for a Saturday picnic. The girl who went to twelve-step meetings wanted to say no; the girl who longed to see the world and learn how to live in it kept drawing nearer.

"I'll go," I told him, "as long as you agree to turn back if I want to." That's how I was then: twenty-six years old and afraid of cars, afraid of men, afraid of any town or highway I didn't know by heart.

"Of course," he said. "We can always have the picnic in my backyard."

* * *

When you grow up in a defunct mining town near Scranton, Pennsylvania, your eye trains on every drop of beauty it can find. The apples deepening to red on the trees, the sun rising milky and pink through the clouds, the dilapidated charm of sooty brick and rusted iron set against blue mountains in all directions. On a Paris street, surrounded by grandeur, you might barely note the smell of rain. It might register as merely pleasant, an addendum. On a summer night in northeastern Pennsylvania, after you've swum all day and are lazing in the backseat as your friend drives past abandoned coal breakers and fluorescent pizza joints, one leg hanging out the window, the entire surface of your teenage skin taut with sunburn and chlorine, you learn the essence of rain.

I didn't even notice my father's drinking until I was in high school and he was downing vodka for breakfast. The more pressing problems to my child mind were that he was a bookie, a dangerous secret that could get him thrown in jail, and that he was always threatening to kill my mother. That my mother couldn't go to the grocery store alone or drive on the highway. A weaker woman would have retreated to bed altogether or been carted off to the hospital for nerves, but some engine kept my mother functioning at the very threshold of overwhelm, frying pork chops, vacuuming, doling out hugs and medicine despite her panic attacks. My parents were twenty-two years older than me.

The hate I came to feel for my father never erased my biological adoration of him. My absolute dependence on my mother never erased the fact that she was also my child, coming to me for advice and rides to the doctor. The love I felt for my three younger brothers, that marrow love you feel for an infant with your own DNA that makes you want to eat them and protect them at the same time, didn't stop me running from the house every day to flee the noise and chaos of their constant boy-fury.

Each morning I headed out under the fat clouds, past the apple tree to school to gather perfect grades. Afternoons I went to the ballet studio, where I manipulated my body into demanding, artificial positions. Nights I drove to the woods with my friends, where I listened to Led Zeppelin, drank pony bottles of Michelob, smoked the occasional joint, and learned the numerous ways in which a girl could dabble in foreplay without plummeting into intercourse. Each dawn represented another catastrophe I somehow made it through unscathed.

I spent the rest of my life marveling at how joyful I felt during my turbulent childhood, so connected to the mountains, the little town, my friends and wounded family. How it was only after the childhood ended that I collapsed under its weight.

I blamed it on the cloudless, infinite sky above Sacramento, as one-dimensional as the prosaic suburbs fanning out below it. I came there with a boyfriend when I was twenty to escape, and it worked for a few years while I graduated college and secured a good job as a technical writer. It was a stark letdown from the California of my imagination but it was also three thousand miles from the emotional magnet of home, where my dad was entering rehab, my mom was checking herself into a treatment center for anxiety, my grandfather was dying, and a divorce was in process.

When my grief erupted, it felt like I might tumble off the face of the earth. The flat sky and mountainless expanse of the Sacramento Valley couldn't contain me. Places and routines lost all familiarity. I suddenly belonged nowhere: not to my boyfriend or my job, not in California or Pennsylvania, not even in my own skin. Streets, buildings, sidewalks appeared as if painted on a sheer curtain. I lived in continual fear of the moment when an omnipotent hand might sweep the curtain aside and push me into the void behind it. When that happened I had to run from my desk, pull over on the highway. Sobs burst from me that were more screams than sobs.

My company's employee assistance counselor said I was processing the post-traumatic stress of growing up in a violent, alcoholic family. On the phone, my mother agreed. She told me to call a therapist and get myself to a twelve-step meeting. I was twenty-four. My teenage dreams of becoming a journalist and traveling through Europe would have to wait while I fixed myself. I attended five Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings a week, bought all the self-help books, and showed up religiously for therapy. By day I wrote mind- numbing software manuals; by night I penned angry letters to my father for his abuse and my mother for enlisting my help to put up with it instead of getting us all out of there.

My boyfriend had to go, not because he'd done anything wrong but because I was clearly dependent on him and needed to live alone. I would be celibate for a year. I found a garden-level apartment on a leafy street in Midtown Sacramento—the city at least had trees, I'd give it that—and set about trying to grow into a healthy adult. For two years I didn't allow myself a beer or a glass of wine. I was dead set on avoiding the textbook pitfalls of young women with backgrounds like mine: abusive relationships, addiction, promiscuous sex, and the mental hospital.


Excerpted from The Wild Oats project by Robin Rinaldi. Copyright © 2015 Robin Rinaldi. Excerpted by permission of Sarah Crichton Books.
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