True romance

Thoughts on a young man’s skepticism about Valentine’s Day

My daughter, who attends Chico Junior High School, brought home a copy of her school newspaper, the Cougar Chronicle, last week. I skimmed through it. It was a special “Valentine Edition,” and I was struck by its “Valentine’s Day Editorial,” a cleverly written and provocative piece by a student named Isaac Miller. Young Mr. Miller doesn’t mince any words.

“Valentine’s Day is in my mind an exercise in pointlessness,” he begins. “…[I]t is just another insignificant holiday,” yet another in an “infestation of meaningless holidays,” a “holiday of artificial love expressed through candy, greeting cards, and flowers. A holiday where your love for someone is measured by the amount of chocolate you buy them. How much love does a solid ton of chocolate equal?”

Good question, Isaac. I’m guessing that’s a lot of love, especially if it’s quality chocolate. But hey, you’re on to something.

“To translate an emotion into physical objects seems like a mad scheme orchestrated by the very people who would profit from this very hoodwinking,” Isaac continues, building up a full head of steam. “I believe that the chocolate, flower, and greeting card companies have all jumped on an easy chance to capitalize on human emotions, turning a small day into a massive chocolate monstrosity.”

All right, Isaac! You go, guy.

But Isaac doesn’t want us to think he’s incapable of seeing any good in Valentine’s Day. There is a small up side to it, he finally acknowledges, with a deft play on words: “The only real pro to this massive con,” he writes in the final line of the editorial, “is the incredible abundance of enormous quantities of candy, which is very nice.”

Isaac, who’s in the eighth grade, deserves a lot of credit for voicing what I suspect many grown men would say if they had the courage to do so. Obviously he’s not afraid of being seen as unromantic by the girls in his class. In fact, I suspect he takes some pride in it.

Give him a few years. Or until he falls in love for the first time.

He has a point, though. Many people, male and female, decry the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. My wife, who otherwise enjoys it when I bring her flowers or take her out to dinner, wants nothing to do with it. It’s cheesy, she says, and besides who wants to go out to dinner, unless it’s to the pizza parlor, on a work and school night?

She’d feel differently, of course, if we were in the restaurant business or owned a flower or card shop. We have some friends who own a restaurant, the kind of smart, upscale place where couples go on Valentine’s Day, and I’m sure they’re booked solid every year at this time. I’m happy for them.

But I know where Isaac is coming from. He’s a bright and sensitive kid who looks out on the world and sees Mammon holding sway where Amor is supposed to be, and it bothers him. He wants love to be pure and spontaneous, to be, well, really romantic. He doesn’t yet understand that part of growing up in America is learning to deal with the commercialization of just about everything in our lives, including the things we hold most dear, and to sort the tawdry and banal from the authentic and unique.

What is romance, after all, but the dance of desire that distinguishes the way we human beings mate from the way baboons do it. It’s a social creation that provides certain niceties to dress up and control the raw biological urge to beget.

Those niceties vary from culture to culture. Valentine’s Day itself is a descendant of Lupercalia, the Roman fertility festival held in mid February that honored, among others, Juno Februata, the goddess of “feverish” (febris) love. As part of the celebrations, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The bachelors would then each draw a name and become paired for the coming year with his “chosen” woman. Many of these matches would end in marriage, so we have to assume that for some participants it was a romantic event.

This system eventually went out of style, in part because the early Christians weren’t big on sex by lottery, but also because people began wanting a little more say-so in choosing their romantic partners. It had worked for some—those lucky enough to hit the lottery jackpot, so to speak—but not for all.

So young Isaac Miller is part of a tradition of sorts. He’s a naysayer challenging current romantic conventions, in this case the co-optation of love in the name of profit. What he doesn’t yet realize is that he can’t win that battle. The forces arrayed against him are too great.

What he will need to do, of course, is develop a romantic style that suits him and the girls, and later women, he’s attracted to. If that has little or nothing in common with the style promoted on Valentine’s Day, fine. But he will need to create a style of some kind, or he’s likely to be a lonely guy for a long time.

I know a married couple, very much in love, whose idea of a perfect romantic getaway is to go fly-fishing for a weekend. I know another couple who go on meditation retreats together (OK, they’ve been married a long, long time, and they also sometimes go to the city to see plays). Some couples wouldn’t think of going off without their kids, while others can’t wait to be alone and breathe life and passion back into their marriages.

But there is something that all romantic styles share, and that’s cultivation of the kind of moment-to-moment attention that tells another person, “You’re important to me, so important that I will give you my entire self right now because I want you to be happy and to know you are loved.” Romance can take many forms, but all are designed to convey this level of caring.

One of the most truly romantic men I’ve known died last year. He was in his 70s. I don’t think he thought of himself as romantic—he was small and round and cherubic in appearance, pleasant to look at but not handsome in the conventional sense—but he was the most attentive and doting husband imaginable. He was retired, but his wife of nearly 50 years, a dynamic and outgoing woman, remained busy doing work that required her to entertain often and to serve as a kind of mistress of ceremonies at large events. I would watch him at these times, noticing the way he was always aware of her—what she was doing, whether she was feeling stressed or needed something—and ever ready to step in to help or comfort. And I could see how much this attention and good will meant to her.

The couple threw a party shortly before he died. They knew he had little time remaining, so they invited his many friends to come and say good-bye to him. As always, he insisted on helping her prepare, and that tired him. By the time the party started, he had to go to bed. But he insisted she tell everyone that he wanted them to enjoy themselves, to celebrate not mourn, and that he wanted to hear happy sounds in his house.

Taking turns, the guests walked back to the bedroom to visit with him. My wife and I went together. He was lying in bed, half asleep, with his wife curled up next to him, forming a cocoon of love. He smiled when he saw us. My wife bent down and hugged him. I took his hand. I told him I wanted to thank him.

“For what?” he asked.

“For teaching me so much about how a man takes care of the woman he loves,” I said.

He laughed, surprised and a little incredulous. Obviously, he’d never thought of himself that way. Then he thanked me.

We sat there with him and his wife for some time, holding his hand, just breathing together. Then we told him we loved him, said good-bye and left. He smiled and rolled over into his wife’s arms, as if to sleep. He died a few days later, at home, his family by his side.

This, then, is what romance is really about. It’s about love, the deepest kind of love, the kind that produces enduring marriages and happy families.

So what I would say to Isaac Miller is this: Hang onto your skepticism of consumerist culture. You’re absolutely right that it tends to reduce life’s most precious aspects to commodities that can be bought and sold. But don’t be afraid of love. And don’t be afraid of romance.

One of these days a girl will come along who will make your heart sing, who will keep you awake at night, trembling, when you think of her. If you want her to feel about you the way you feel about her, treat her tenderly. Treat her with kindness. Pay attention to her. Let her know you care.

And be honest with her. Tell her how you feel about Valentine’s Day. Maybe she feels the same way. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a special day honoring love and lovers. After all, none of us would be here without them. Find your own way to enjoy Valentine’s Day together. Pick her a bouquet of the narcissi that are blooming now. Go for a walk in the park. Make her a card by hand. Write her a poem. Tell her what your really feel about her, deep down. You don’t have to spend a dime.

Believe me, she’ll think you’re a very romantic guy.