Thursday, February 12, 2015

Still in the dark on Valentine's Day

I'm heading to Los Angeles today, and as much as I wanted to hang out the "Gone Fishing" sign, I hate the thought of leaving you staring hungrily at your screen. Valentine's Day is Saturday—not Friday, as this 1997 column claims. But otherwise it holds true. 

     This Friday is Valentine's Day. In preparation for tiptoeing into the minefield, I dug into Valentine's Day lore, trying to find a clue as to why it is always such an ordeal.
     Most of the stuff was pretty tedious, the various Saints Valentine who may or may not have existed, and the colorful ways they may or may not have been slaughtered.
     There was an interesting line from Chaucer, who comments how chickens chose their mates on Valentine's Day. The word he uses for chickens is "foul," and only then did I realize that "fowl" and "foul" have the same origin, something that should be obvious to anyone who has been to a poultry factory.
     Interesting, but not helpful.
     Then I ran across a theory offered by Jack Santino, a professor at Bowling Green University, that Valentine's Day is the opposite of Halloween. "Halloween is approximately seven weeks before the winter solstice and marks the progression into the darkest period of the year," he writes. "Valentine's Day is about seven weeks after it and marks the progression out of winter and into spring." Santino points out that Halloween imagery is all about harvested crops and death, while Valentine's Day is flowers and romance and life.
     And—this struck me as most important—Halloween is outdoors and male, given to pranks and disguise, and Valentine's Day is indoors and female, given to revealing new affections and reinforcing old ones.
     Bingo. No wonder I make such a hash of it—as I suspect many men do—year in and year out. Valentine's Day is a female thing.
     Some of my worst dating nightmares have taken place on Valentine's Day. One year, I waited until the last minute to make a restaurant reservation, not realizing that Valentine's Day is Amateur Night Out, second only to New Year's. Every place was booked, and we stopped at six restaurants before we found one that had only a half-hour wait. It turned into a 2 1/2-hour wait, and we finally ate just before midnight. It's amazing she still married me. That's love.
     And love must receive its due. But what? Too small of a token — say, just a card and a single, elegant rose — would look cheap and receive scorn.
      But too much is just as bad. If I gave my wife the traditional dozen red roses — which cost about $200 this time of year — she would take one look at the flowers, then murder me and bury the body where it would never be found.
      She's frugal. Maybe your significant other has a different characteristic. Extravagant. Or traditional. Or quirky. Whatever it is, you, as the guy, are expected to have measured your lovemate's individual soul and arranged just the proper gift to resonate with that soul perfectly.
     Woe to we who misjudge. Last year was a disaster. My wife had been sick for a week. I was running the house, cleaning, caring for the baby, trying to work. This didn't seem like the time for grand romantic gestures.
     Then, about 6 p.m., she came downstairs, pale, wraithlike, sick, blinking into the light. Where, she wondered, were the Valentine's fripperies? The surprises? The chocolate delicacies? I stared at her, agog, as if I were in a foxhole in war and a corpsman belly-crawled over and shouted, above the shrieking shells, that they needed men immediately over at the firebase to dance around the maypole.
    That brings up the element of surprise. Even the perfect gift turns a little sour if you tip your hand ahead of time. If you mention to your wife today, "I thought I'd buy you some nice lingerie for Valentine's Day," she'll react as if you said you want a divorce. The perfect thing must be revealed at the perfect moment, perfectly. 
     I almost had it once, almost 10 years ago. My girlfriend wanted to see "Cats." It was a hot ticket, playing at the Shubert Theatre. Now, I would just as soon be tied in a sack with cats as go see the musical, but, well, you know, amantes sunt amentes* and all that. So I bought the tickets. I arranged for an early dinner, close to the Shubert: the Berghoff,** a get-you-in, get-you-out type of place if ever there were. There was a long line—Valentine's Day, remember—and I almost tipped her off by absentmindedly crushing my fedora into a ball while we waited.
     But we got in, had a pleasant dinner, and were just at the cusp of leaving, about 20 minutes before curtain time. The waiter was pushing dessert. No thanks, I said, just the check.
     There must have been some revealing tone in my voice—waiters can smell fear, like dogs. This one smiled and said: "Going to see a show, eh?" I issued an immediate denial: oh no, not a show, not us, nope. Too late. My girlfriend broke into a wide grin and exulted: "Cats!"
     It's amazing that she still married me.
     This year, I have a gift for her—she knows what it is, and I know she knows, though we've never discussed it. That's love.
                 —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 9, 1997

*  "lovers are lunatics"
** Closed in 2006; later re-opened, but only patronized by tourists and the spiritually dead.


  1. Pleasant and funny article but we'd like to hear your thoughts on the JRW scandal, when you have time.

    1. What's to say? Rules are rules, but it was the adults who broke them. Punish them, punish the team, as an entity. Don't punish the kids. But Little League, and youth sports in general, are screwed up, so why should this be any different? My kid couldn't play chess in the nationals because of some jealous coach complaining about jurisdiction. That's about it.

  2. "Spiritually dead" is hyperbole ... or is it?

    It's not like they reopened as a McDonald's ... or did they?


    1. John,

      Neil seems to love ripping on the Berghoff when the opportunity arises. One of his more detailed explanations of how this came to be is here. "For me, the lowest rung of chthonic corporate ill-will must be reserved for The Berghoff Restaurant." The pertinent paragraphs are more than halfway into the post:

      Though I understand his wrath, and try to follow the dictates of our Maximum Leader when practicable, I still will occasionally swallow my pride along with the trio of sausages and patronize the ole schnitzel-shop. Especially if we're stranded by the Art Institute and Miller's Pub is too crowded... Of course, "spiritually dead" is one of the milder things one might say about me and my ilk. ; )

  3. Buy the roses from a grocery store. Save a lot of $.


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