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Bridget Siegel Opens Up On Domestic Affairs

Subject: Bridget Siegel

Credentials: Actor, writer, political consultant. She has worked on campaigns at the local state and national levels. She graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Author of Domestic Affairs: A Campaign Novel, a steamy read about a woman who goes to work for a presidential hopeful and they wind up having an affair. Siegel worked on Hillary Clinton‘s first Senate race and for Andrew Cuomo‘s Attorney General and Governor races. She worked on Terry McAuliffe‘s Virginia Senate race, for the Sen. John Kerry/John Edwards presidential ticket, for the DNC and for President Obama‘s 2008 presidential race.

Her first job out of Georgetown… was as a fundraiser for Clinton’s Senate race. She walked in her for her interview and said, “I’ll do anything but fundraise.” Three months later, she had the job as her fundraiser. It wasn’t as if she was devoid of experience. She’d interned at a bunch of campaigns. She raised money for Geraldine Ferraro‘s Senate race when she ran against Chuck Schumer.

Resides: Midtown Manhattan in a little brick pre-war building with tons of interesting neighbors.

Must watch TV: There are so many it’s embarrassing. I love “Scandal” and I’m completely hooked on that. I love “Revenge.” I really like “Smash.” I will admit I like “General Hospital.” The “Wheel of Fortune.” I auditioned for it last year and I’m going to be on it soon.

Favorite authors: Paulo Coelho; I love Chick lit. Linsdey Kelk and Jennifer Weiner I have a good friend, Alberto Hazan, who writes amazing books.

Best book you’ve read in the last year: I just read Andrew Tobias‘, The only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need. It’s amazing and a random break from the other stuff I read, but it was really fantastic and much needed.

Typical day in your life: I am a consultant now, but I really am trying to make it in the acting world. I do a little bit of politics, but I’m going out on auditions. I’m in the midst of finishing and producing an independent movie from last summer. It’s called “That Thing With the Cat.” I’m entering it into festivals. It’s about a recluse girl who is obsessed with true crime and decides to solve the murder of a cat. It’s a quirky New York story about a recluse who is finally meeting the people in her building.

Was Olivia, your main character in Domestic Affairs, based on you in looks, thoughts, feelings, experiences? A lot of it was based on myself, but he truth of it was, when I started to work on the character, I sat down with a lot of friends and other fundraisers. I hadn’t realized how many people had the exact same stories, like verbatim stories. It was a nice and not nice thing to see. It definitely made the book easier. It’s not one true story but a compilation of stories. I definitely used my imagination. The trip to Cartagena was definitely part of my imagination. I took stories from campaign workers who went on trips and saw things happen or had things happen. I would say every story in the book had some roots in truth, either mine or someone else’s. I can’t think of one that’s completely out of nowhere.

Meaningless sex and campaigns: I don’t think it’s usually meaningless sex. It’s people who are in something together who share so many beliefs and experiences that it is more of a heart thing. As I was talking to people who have had these experiences, who have had romantic relationships with politics, it’s rarely something that is just a throwaway. At least for the staffer. You rarely work for someone  you don’t believe in and feel for them.

Politicians and affairs: Yes definitely. I think a lot more people have had them than we know about. I hate to say it. Certainly I’m jaded, but I still think there are great politicsians out there. It’s not every politician that does it. I think there are some that do it a lot.

Thoughts on cheating: I’m definitely opposed to it. It’s definitely not the right thing to do. Things get gray. Things happen. Unfortunately I see it more from the staffer’s side than from the politician’s side. In most cases, it’s someone who is older and idolized and should know better. It’s also very hard because campaigns tend to be bubbles and you get in this world of people who are so loyal to each other and obsessed with what they’re doing that you lose a bit of reality and perspective.

Is it inevitable for a politician to cheat these days? No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think you hear a lot about it because it’s maybe more hypocritical for them to do it. I think it happens all over. I’ve been lucky enough to work for a lot of good ones. I worked for John Edwards, who has proven not to have the highest moral competence.

What was your reaction to the whole Edwards debacle? I think it’s such an interesting story to me … some politicians, you meet them and you know they’re slimy and some lose their moral compass as it goes along. John Edwards was really the latter. He was not a jerk when he started off. He was an interesting story because he got sucked into that campaign world. Once you’re  in a campaign it’s amazing how loyal campaign workers are to people they want to succeed.

What did you think of the Mark Sanford race? Ugh…well, I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, so I’m really disappointed in that. I’m really surprised that voters gave him a second chance. I think the way he has handled himself  vis-a-vis his ex-wife has been surprising and very arrogant. Just from what I’ve seen. It certainly seems that after something so public and so crushing to his family that he would want to preserve their protection a little bit more.

Advice for younger women going to work for campaigns: I wouldn’t say it’s only young women. I would say be careful to not get sucked into the bubble of a campaign in general. It’s very easy to get sucked into the bubble and not be able to see right from wrong.

Your portrayal of the politician’s wife was definitely unfavorable. Who was she based on? I chose to do it like this because I think often there’s more gray than it appears. It was based on many, definitely. At least a couple. It didn’t seem like it in the book, but I do have empathy for people in that position.

Did you have different endings in mind or just one and did you ever consider a different conclusion to the female fundraiser having an affair with the politician than the one you chose? Tons of different ideas actually. I kind of at first wanted to leave it as a cliffhanger. As I processed it, I wanted to leave it in a place where she still believed in politics. As I wrote it, I wanted her to make that choice to walk away from Landon. The character of Olivia has lots of weaknesses throughout the book and I wanted [her conclusion to be clean]. I considered having it be unsure, whether she would end up with him. But I don’t think that’s usually where it goes.

Is a sequel in the cards? I would love to have the chance to, sure. They were fun characters to create, a fun world to live in retrospectively.

Are there campaign trail secrets you will never spill? Take to the grave, absolutely.

What’s in your future? Any chance you’ll work for Hillary Clinton in a 2016 race for the White House? I hope my acting and writing will prevent me from it. But no, I don’t think so. I would love to see her win. I would love to help out. I’m just hoping it can be as actress coming to visit. I loved working for Hillary Clinton and I would love to help her again in the future certainly, but I’m a little too old a little too tired for campaign life I think.

Read a chapter of the book…

Domestic Affairs: A Campaign Novel by Bridget Siegel: Chapter 7 (Paperback; Weinstein Books, May 14, 2013)

Eight forty-five the next morning, Olivia officially walked off the elevator and into the dream-job reception area. For the next year she would be working out of the offices of Jeremy Goldberg, a rich Texan who had moved to New York with his wife, Jenna, to run his family’s hedge fund. The Goldbergs were friends of Taylor’s finance chair, David Henley, who had arranged the workspace. Since federal law required a campaign to pay a “fair market price” for its offices, campaigners had two viable options — convince a donor with enough office space to let them “rent some rooms” or find real estate developers who had a great space that was under construction. The former was the chic option but not likely unless the campaign was high-profile enough. Like Taylor for President. For the latter, the mess didn’t matter to the campaign — it fit the theme actually, and the developers could justify renting it to them at absurdly low prices. In both cases, the space was impracticable for anything but a campaign-type operation and as a perk, the companies had a possible governor, senator, or president as a tenant.

Big-time, she said in her head as she looked around silently thanking Henley for putting this deal with the Goldbergs together. The offices were beautiful — extravagantly stark, with white marble floors and crazy black leather chairs, low to the ground and almost hammock-like. Every office she went into these days had them, which seemed strange since they were so awkward to sit in. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it was some business mind game executives played to psych people out before meetings. I could have people wait awkwardly here.

She indulged in the thought for a moment, appreciating her new office but sure she would never actually think to do that. It was perfect. As an added bonus, she didn’t even need to deal with setting up any of the basics, like phones and Internet.

This New York time, though, she knew, could only last so long. Campaigns grew at an insanely quick pace. If they won Iowa she would probably be hiring twenty or so people. They would have to get a huge space, and realistically, it would probably be at the campaign headquarters in Georgia. The campaign life of pizza boxes, beers, and naps on gross carpets would be waiting in February. But for now, she was a presidential fundraising executive on the twenty-third floor of the Lever Building in New York City. She flipped her hair a bit, feeling empowered.

“Hi.” She smiled to the tall Nordic receptionist, hoping the woman recognized her clout.

The receptionist smiled with pursed lips.

“You must be the political girl.” The woman spoke barely above a whisper and emphasized the word “political” as if it were a disease, immediately bringing Olivia back to life. Her life. More standard executive psychological warfare, she figured. It was working.

Olivia pulled down on the edge of her suit jacket as if it might help tug some wrinkles out of the material. She realized that even though she had put on her newest Banana Republic ensemble she, as always, was clearly identifiable as the young, broke activist. She kept hoping she would walk into an office where they’d give her a makeover like the girl got in The Devil Wears Prada. Maybe they had a secret closet full of designer clothes. She’d be on the lookout for her Stanley Tucci for sure.

The receptionist whispered again. “Someone will be right with you. Please have a seat.” It seemed more like an order than a suggestion.

As Olivia assessed the chairs, wondering how she could sit without flashing the receptionist or falling completely, a short, stocky man in his late forties appeared.

“Hi, I’m James, the office manager.” He reached out his hand to her. “Come on back.” From the looks of his pleated khaki pants and polka-dot button-down shirt, Olivia knew he would definitely not be giving her a makeover. Still, she was relieved to see a friendly face and hear a voice rise above a whisper. As she followed closely behind him down the hallway she realized that this would probably be the friendliest face she would encounter here. Office after office was as stark as the reception room. Indistinguishable young men sat at each desk, most of them on headset phones, surrounded by papers, and all looking haggard and well worn despite their brand-new suits. One or two looked up as she passed, but most didn’t dare break their concentration. Olivia found herself almost tiptoeing for fear of disturbing them.

At the end of the hallway was an exact replica of the other offices except for the fact that it was void of anything but a desk, some file cabinets, and a big old computer. It wasn’t quite the executive suite she had imagined, but it was definitely a large step above most campaign spaces. James flung his arm toward the desk.

“Your palace, madame!”

“Tha — ”

“The one right next to you is for the other girl. She’s coming, right?”

“Yes, Addie, she’s starting Wednesday.” Olivia was relieved she had decided to take the two days to herself to get acquainted with the new offices before Addie began. She had seemed nice enough at the Connecticut event, but Olivia had decided she needed to collect her thoughts before she had a deputy. And that was before she knew there would be so many thoughts to collect.

“Copy room down at the end of that hall, along with a kitchen. It’s fully stocked, so help yourself! We put breakfast out around six. By ‘we,’ I mean me of course. Lunch goes out around noon. For dinner you’re on your own unless the bosses are here late. Then we order up. Usually from ’21′ Club or Marea. Either costs more than my rent, so definitely take them up on it when they ask you to join. If you’re here. I heard you work a lot. The boss said you work a lot. That you’d probably need your own key and stuff. You work for Taylor, huh?”

“I do.” Olivia grinned proudly. She was still so excited to be able to say that. And I love him. She was determined to stop adding that in her head like it was a good thing.

“I really wanted them to win last time. And he’s got that pretty wife. I knocked on doors for them in my neighborhood. Woulda been better if they had won.”

“God, it’s so true.” She thought about that all the time. “The world would really be a different place. Hopefully, this time we’ll do it right.”

“I like it already. He’d be better as president anyway!”

“Thanks, James.”

“Anyway,” he said, going on with his tour, “this computer should work.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I have my laptop. Just as long as I can print from one of them.”

“That should work. I’ll have Luke, the IT guy, stop by to check on it. He doesn’t get in till about noon most days. Not exactly an early riser. Tech kids.”

“Thank you so much, James. This is great.”

“No problemo. Let me know if you need anything else. I’m right past the kitchen.” He gave her a kind smile and walked away, his arms moving at his sides like a speed-walker’s.

Olivia sat down at her new desk and looked around at the empty office. There was a small window that looked directly into another building. It was so quiet, so different from her last campaign office, which was one of the real estate deals — an under-construction, mostly dilapidated floor of a building.

Sitting at the desk felt great. She had never been on a campaign that felt so invincible so early on. Sure, Taylor had a few good challengers in the Democratic field, but none of them really stood a chance. The only close contender was Senator Kramer, from Colorado, but the Democrats didn’t need Colorado like they needed the South. A year from now, the Taylor bid would undoubtedly be the forerunning campaign for the president of the United States, and she was in charge of the national fundraising.

She looked down at the Google Alert on her BlackBerry, savoring the moment. “Taylor taps Greenley for Fundraising Role.” Sure, her mom didn’t know what Politico was, but her colleagues did. She did. And even her mother would understand the significance of a news organization writing about her getting a job. Ben Smith was reporting on her. Sam Stein and Chris Cillizza, too. She warranted her own Google Alert. At twenty-seven she had made it to the top of her profession. She had flown through the lower ranks of fundraising teams in just three campaigns. Being put in charge of Adams’s campaign was a fluke, but she had done well. Now she was changing the world at one of the highest levels. She should write an email to her political science professor and tell him. He’d be so happy for her. She scribbled down the idea in the new notebook she had spent three days picking out. The perfect notebook for the perfect job. Then a wave of panic hit as she remembered she had to actually do the job.

She opened her laptop to a blank Excel file and stared down at the paper next to her computer with the big number written on top of her to-do list. The one right above “write Professor Eigen a note.”

Five million dollars.

Five million dollars and write a note. Spectacular to-do list, Olivia. Perhaps we should start with the money. She underlined “five million dollars.” That’s what they needed to collect before the Iowa Caucus in nine months.

She wasn’t sure who had decided on that number. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t really her concern. She just had to hit that mark, and in the course of three quarterly filings. She made a chart on her scrap paper. Half a million already in the bank. She would need to bring in another half a million before July 30. Another two million in September and then the final two million in January.

Olivia stared at the Excel sheet and thought about the numbers. This was her favorite part of the process — imagining the budget. Really it was just a theoretical list of numbers, but to her it was where she could do anything, raise any amount. Breaking it out gave her the road map to get to impossible numbers in impossible time. Down the first column she began typing in “New York,” “Texas,” “Florida . . . ” and the cities she thought they could work in. She added in prospective hosts and within an hour she had the start to a road map.

As she began turning to her calls, her BlackBerry buzzed.

“Hey, Jacob.”

“Livster! How’s the first day?”

“It would probably be better if I had slept at all this weekend!”

“Oh, please. Your ability to operate well without sleep was one of the key reasons I hired you.”

Olivia laughed, knowing that was actually probably true and wondering how she might phrase her unique abilities in the “Special Skills” section of her résumé.

“So what’s up?”

“We need to talk about the budget.”

“Okay.” Olivia looked at the sheet, not quite prepared to go through the numbers, but at least having an idea of how she would get to five. Jacob paused a bit.

“So remember when we talked about raising five million before Iowa?”

“Ummm, yeah, my goal hadn’t escaped my mind just yet. I’m not that sleep deprived.”

“Yeah, actually we need it to be seven.”

“What?!” Olivia shook her head and realized it was one of Jacob’s jokes. “Very funny, Jacob.” She imitated him making fun of her: “And I should wear my sequins when I raise it, right?”

Jacob’s voice didn’t waver. “You shouldn’t really wear sequins when you do anything, Liv.”

She stopped laughing as he continued on.

“This one’s for real. We just met with the pollsters. If we can’t run an extended media buy in Iowa, we can’t move Kramer’s negatives, and ours, the way we need to.” Olivia looked into the phone as if she might be able to find a dose of reality there.

“Jacob, that’s insane.”

“I know, but we can do it. We have to.”

“Jacob.” She didn’t even know what to say. How could they change her budget by so much in one day? Her first day no less. “Two million dollars is a lot of money.”

“Yeah, the pollster thinks so too.”

“Stop it. Stop joking around.” Olivia stammered, more scared than angry, “Okay, I . . . I mean . . . I don’t know if I would’ve even taken this job with that goal.” She knew it wasn’t true but changing the goal line by this much, this early, all just seemed so unfair. She had to protest.

“Really?” He sounded sincerely skeptical.

“No,” she replied, “of course not. But it sucks! How often is this going to happen?”

“It won’t anymore. I promise.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She rolled her eyes, knowing every minute she spent talking about the goal was one more minute she was psyching herself out and one more minute that she needed to spend working. “Okay, better get started.” She hung her head backward over her chair and closed her eyes.

“That’s the spirit!” Jacob yelled with sarcastic motivation.

“You’re a pain in my ass, Jacob.”

“You love me for it.”

“Like a mailman loves a pit bull.”

She hung up the phone and threw her head down on her folded arms. Fifteen minutes ago I wasn’t sure five was possible. How the heck am I going to get to seven? A hopeless ache started to grow in her stomach.

“Hard first day?”

She opened her eyes and picked up her head to see James peering in the door. She rubbed at one of her eyes, remembering she was neither alone nor in the world she had just created for herself.

“Oh, hi. Sorry. No, not so bad at all! All good.” She added in a thumbs-up. “All good” was such a useful phrase. People rarely pressed for further information after it was said. She wondered when she had started saying it. Probably in high school, she thought. It was so much easier to use those two words than explain all her protests and rallies to friends, who really didn’t want to hear about global warming or Iraq anyway.

“Glad to hear it! Have some coffee! We have great coffee here.”

“Will do. Thanks so much.” She turned back to the Excel file and added ten more blank lines. That was her sole accomplishment for a solid hour. She simply couldn’t get her head around the challenge.

By six that evening she still wasn’t sure seven million was humanly possible, much less probable. The buzz of a private number calling on her phone was a welcome distraction. Adams, she thought with a smile. He had been calling all day with things he had “forgotten” to ask her before she left. The familiarity of his voice was a comfort. Plus the questions were easy.

But when she picked up the private number this time there was a silent pause on the other end of the line.

“Hello?”

“Hey, babe.”

Olivia smiled, recognizing the governor’s voice but not the familiarity, as embarrassment caused her face to flush.

“Hi.” Silence filled the line as she sat nervously awaiting her boss’s words. Just the sound of his accent excited her in a way she couldn’t help but admit was more than professional.

“So.” He paused. “Jacob thought I should call and make sure we hadn’t scared you off this weekend.”

Olivia made a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh or a snort.

“I know.”

He seemed to have a bizarre understanding of the sound she didn’t comprehend herself. Did that mean there really was something odd to what had happened?

“Wait. Did you –?” She wasn’t even sure what she was asking him. “Did he –?” Stop it. Nothing happened, she repeated to herself again, annoyed that she needed so much reminding of such a simple fact.

“He was worried Yanni and the party did it.”

“Oh, no. I wasn’t. It was fine.” She laughed awkwardly, wishing she had a clue what he was thinking. And wishing, a little bit, that she hadn’t been totally off base. That there was something more meaningful to his coming into her room than a casual accident.

“It probably should have,” he said with a touch of introspective humor. “So we’re still okay? You’re not scared off?”

“I’m not scared off. I mean the numbers are a little scary, but when it comes to you guys, I’m good.” She tried to lighten her tone.

“Are they realistic?” Word of the budget had swerved him immediately into business mode.

“Well, yes,” she said, a bit unsure and unprepared to talk about it. “I mean, they’re high. Really high. But campaigns know no other way I guess. I think if they were too realistic I’d be more worried. We need to make a splash, right?”

“We need to show massive numbers for this to work, but more than that we need to not be surprised. If you can’t get them, I need you to speak up.”

Olivia thought about speaking up right then and there and then quickly thought better of it. The force of his voice jarred her into a memory of being in school and needing to have the right answer. “Okay. I know.”

“Look, this campaign is about to expand by the minute,” he said. “We’re making decisions now based on the budget. Huge decisions — media-buy projections, consultants. Once we go down this road, there’s no turning back. We can’t change the budget halfway through.”

Suddenly the numbers in front of Olivia that she had stared at all day became objects of even more intense trepidation. She was responsible for people’s salaries and, more importantly, for whether or not those people would be able to do what they needed to win Iowa. Iowa. A huge national event that could determine the presidency was suddenly a tangible item on her scribbled to-do list.

“I put together the start of a plan today.” She didn’t tell him it was for two million off his goal. It was a big exaggeration. A lie maybe. But how could she not? “We can get there. I know we can. I can do this.” The last sentence fell out of her mouth, but she said it more to herself than to him.

“You can do this, Olivia. It’s going to be harder and bigger than anything you’ve done before and I’m going to push you more than you think I should sometimes. But it’s because I know you can do this. You know, when I played football in college, there were a bunch of different trainers and everyone avoided this one guy, Barry. Barry always put twenty more pounds of weight on you than you could handle. He was tough and he made you feel like you were at the bottom of a ditch. But he was always my favorite. It’s the guy who adds twenty pounds to your bar who really believes in you, who pushes you to be not the best you think you can be, but to be even better. That’s who you want setting your goals.”

Olivia exhaled, a bit speechless, as he continued on. Her inappropriate thoughts seemed to slip away. This was Landon Taylor — the governor she’d studied, the politician she idolized. And he believed in her. Not because he thought she was pretty or because he liked her smile. Because he knew she could do the job.

“That’s who I’m going to be for you. I’m going to add the weight, but only because I know you can handle it. I see something special in you. I’ll be there spotting you. But you’re not going to need me.”

“I won’t let you down,” she pledged, as if she were joining the army.

“I know you won’t.” His words carried a sweet confidence. “What I do need though is for you to tell me if we’re not on track. I need to know you are on the numbers, that you’re keeping us on track to get to where we need to be. I need to trust you to be the person who will give it to me straight. It’s an unfortunate truth, but money is the gas of this campaign. We need good parts and a good body, sure, but without gas we won’t go.”

“Okay.” Olivia spoke with apprehension. For the first time since the Hamptons she was concerned only with the job at hand.

“And hear me when I say this, please.” His “please” sounded like more of an order than a nicety. “I can change the budget early in the game, but I can’t change it last-minute, so if we’re not hitting our numbers, you have to tell me as early as possible.”

 

“Okay.” She was responsible for the numbers. She would have other superiors, but at the end of the day, she was reporting to Governor Taylor.

“We’re going to do a finance committee meeting soon, right?”

“Yes, sir. Two weeks from tomorrow.”

“Two weeks? That’s soon.”

Way too soon, Olivia wanted to scream. She had begged Jacob for more time to get herself organized, but he had put it in motion before she filled out her W-9 and refused to change it. It. A national finance committee meeting. Most campaigns did two, maybe three, of these in an entire election cycle. They were gatherings set up to woo and motivate the most important donors. For the Taylor campaign, it would be a day in Georgia, complete with a full briefing on the campaign budget, run by Olivia. There would be presentations by Billy and Jacob, as well as their pollster, Richard. Aubrey would be organizing a lunch at one of the Habitat sites.

Terrible reasoning, Olivia had told Jacob when he explained that they had to have a finance committee meeting early because the ball was already rolling. Still, she couldn’t argue too hard about the schedule before she even had a desk. She had planned to bring it up with him again this very day but then had gotten sidetracked with the goal change.

“Yes, it is.” She spoke without a hint of the concern she felt. “But Jacob and I talked in depth about it. We already have good people confirmed to attend, and I’ll be on the phones to get everyone else we need there. We need to hit the ground running anyway, and it gives me a good excuse to introduce myself to people and get to know the group. I always like an extra reason to call and harass people.”

She regurgitated all the reasons Jacob had given her when she had argued against the time crunch. As she spoke, she found herself becoming more and more committed to making it work.

“Yeah,” the governor said in agreement. “That sounds smart.” He left an awkward silence on the phone. She tried to think of something intelligent to say, but he continued on. “You’ll be ready?”

“I’ll be ready.” By the time they hung up the phone, Olivia had taken full responsibility for the meeting in her own mind. She could do this. It didn’t matter that she had never done anything so big before. Nor did it matter that she wasn’t sure how to do it. She was never the smartest kid in the class, never the most talented on the soccer field, but she could always come out on top. Sure, she wasn’t the very best at anything, but she could work hard enough at anything to be damn good at it. Her talents, as she saw them, weren’t innate. They were earned.

 

“You just set your mind to it.” She heard her mom’s voice in her head. The same voice that encouraged her to try out for soccer in high school even though she had never played in any organized fashion. “Keep your eye on the ball. With your determination, the sky’s the limit.” The coaches had called Olivia the “Rudy” of the team, letting her join not because she could play (they told her in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t very good), but because she had more heart than they’d seen in years. Sure enough, two years later Olivia had made varsity and all-county. The sky’s the limit, she repeated in her head. I can do this.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Weinstein Books, from Domestic Affairs: A Campaign Novel. Copyright © 2013 by Bridget Siegel.

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