A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bore of the Roses

A couple of weeks ago, I pushed my shopping cart into Fred Meyer and immediately winced as the Seasonal Display assaulted me:  shiny plastic hearts, fake flowers, lacy ribbons, and fuchsia teddy bears.  Near the cash registers, the impulse-purchases on offer were those heart-shaped candies that are almost as tasty as Tums.  “Be Mine!”  “Luv U!” It was that time of year again.

Based in part on what a big Valentine’s Day Grinch I am, I spent years assuming I had some kind of allergy to romance -- and indeed to all things loving, tender, and touching.  What else could I think?  I routinely scowl at jewelry displays that exhort men to show their devotion by opening their wallets.  I mock movies in which the artfully-bloodied hero wins the artfully-disheveled-yet-still-eyelinered girl.  I am ruthlessly sarcastic about novels in which brooding, rugged ‘Chet’ and sassy-yet-innocent ‘Estella’ suffer inexplicable mutual magnetism despite their drastic and improbable misunderstandings, and subsequently fall out of their clothes.  Even things I normally appreciate – luscious assortments of creamy dark chocolates that require a map to navigate their multi-layered deliciousness – seem overwrought when wrapped in heart-shaped ribbon-adorned boxes.  All this stuff is aimed squarely at my demographic, and yet it has always left me cold.  Ergo, I long ago concluded, I must be utterly unsentimental.

When I was really little, the age my kids are now, I didn’t hate February 14th, but I didn’t really get it, either.  I ate the Tums-candy with the rest of the class, and exchanged the everybody-gets-one Valentines, as prescribed.  I remember thinking that it was oddly pointless to give the same card to the kid you liked and the one who destroyed your Lego-block towers, but at that age, a lot of grownup rules seemed pretty weird.

This year, now that my own kids are in kindergarten, I was sucked into the not-really-optional kiddie Valentines vortex.  Class lists came home from school.  I figured that we might as well make this exercise as creative (read: gluey) and educational (read: “we love penmanship!”) as possible.  Besides, as mentioned, I’m allergic to the Valentines section at Fred Meyer, so purchasing the pre-fab cards was anathema to me. 

I felt a twinge of déjà vu when one of my daughters, sounding out the names on her class list, said, “Do I have to give a Valentine to ‘Warthog’?” [all children’s names have been altered to protect the innocent, and also for my own amusement].

I told her that she did.  I got out the construction paper.  It wasn’t pink.  Green and blue Valentines are ok, right?  I got out the glue sticks, the scissors, and the markers, and I even unearthed a few sparkly things.  Then I looked at the lists of names, and sighed.  Fifty-six hand-lettered cards amounts to a Herculean effort for two small people who have only recently become semi-literate (“I do not like green eggs and ham… and I also do not like Valentines Day, Sam-I-Am.”)

As the twins worked away, making cards not only for Alligator, who invited them to his birthday party, but also for Albatross, who apparently spends work time staring at his pencil, and Lemur, who has Serious Behavior Problems, I wondered who was going to be left out later on, when everyone gets a little older and the rules change.  Because if making Valentines for everyone at age five seems like a rather pointless exercise in sweatshop labor, sending flowers only to the popular kids at age fifteen is far worse.

When I was in high school, Valentine’s Day was used as an excuse for a fundraiser/popularity-contest called Carnation Day.  Kids were encouraged to send color-coded dyed carnations to friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and crushes.  By the end of the day, the popular girls had dense bouquets, rich in reds and pinks.  I had one or two crumpled yellow blossoms hanging out of my three-ring binder. 

It only got worse in college.  There were plenty of Valentines events, university-sanctioned and otherwise.  Such proceedings required (or presumed) an actual date.  I had plenty of terrific male friends, but they generally treated me like one of the guys -- unless they preferred guys as dates, in which case they treated me as one of the girls.

Sometimes, my friends asked me for advice about romance.  I protested that this was akin to asking me to translate Swahili, but they kept right on asking.  In the dramatic screen-play of college romance, I didn’t have a role – but I was the script prompter. 

In my senior year, my roommates and I held an Anti-Valentines party, complete with black torn hearts.  After that, I ignored the pseudo-holiday to the best of my ability.  Still, I was pretty much convinced that I just didn’t belong in the same universe as anything even vaguely romantic.

Roughly five years later, I met Jay.  I immediately thought he was pretty fabulous, of course – but that doesn’t mean that there were any hearts, or doilies, or icky sentiment – of course not!  We went hiking together, and talked about good books, and recounted past outdoor adventures, and discussed world events – you know, the sort of things one does with a guy who is not prone to brooding or improbable misunderstandings. 

One October day, about two months after we’d first met, as the first snowflakes of the season drifted down, Jay met me at the door with a gift.  “I thought of giving you flowers,” he said.  “But… you aren’t really a flowers sort of person… so I got you these.”  And he handed me a pair of back-country skis. 

I’d never owned my own pair before, although I’d skied quite a bit on borrowed ones.  When I protested at such a gift, he demurred that they’d been heavily discounted.  “Besides, I wanted you to have them… because… well, I want to spend a lot of time out skiing with you,” he explained simply.

I skied with him.  I married him.  We produced two children, and had yet more adventures. 

Twelve years later, there I was, watching the kids working away industriously at their Valentines.  When one of them proudly showed me the one she’d created for her bestest friend, ‘Pterodactyl’, I found myself grinning at her kindergarten spelling. 

“Happy Valitis Day” the card proclaimed.

Valitis!  So that’s what it was!  Back in my not-ill-spent-enough youth, I spent far too many years suffering from valitis.  But luckily, sometime just before the turn of the millennium, aided by a pair of skis in the hands of the right person, it became obvious to me that I can be plenty loving, and yes, even a true romantic, without subscribing to the maudlin, mawkish version of Valentine’s Day being served up to me in the aisles of Fred Meyers. 

This year, on the 14th, Jay bought us all fresh strawberries, melon, and pineapple in blessedly ordinary packaging.  The kids handed out their paper missives -- even to Warthog and Lemur.  They seemed to buy into my explanation that these examples of kindness and generosity – not to mention Very Best Handwriting – might help make the recipients nicer kids, in the long term.  I may have almost believed it myself.  And this past weekend, I skied a hundred miles through snowy forests and beneath dancing aurora, [but that’s the next blog post] while my fabulous husband took care of the twins and held down the fort. I had plenty of time to cogitate on what I think Valentines Day ought to be about.

I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the variety of romance and the brand of sentimentalism that doesn’t give me hives.  I certainly know I’m lucky.  But I reserve the right to ridicule the February Seasonal Display – and I’m still not going to eat those chalky little hearts.

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