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Hey! Don’t I know you from the club? You know, like, the least exclusive club in the world? The club of Valentine’s Day killjoys? Thought so. I could tell you were a card-carrying member when I spied you in the drug store back on December 26th, recoiling as the "seasonal" aisle turned pink and red and sappy.
So you, my kindred spirit, understand when I say the 2/14 industry is annoying; the superficial formula feels like an insult to actual amorosity. I’m a latter-day Lloyd Bentsen burning Dan Quayle: I serve with true love. I know true love. True love is a friend of mine. And Valentine’s Day, you are no true love.
But all-or-nothing thinking will get me nowhere. So I’ll admit that while the commercial exploitation of romance sends me and my ilk around the bend, I do break ranks with some of my fellow Valentine’s Day refuseniks. Because I am a sucker for the Valentinian subcategory of wholesome affection.
In fact, for years I looked forward to Valentine’s Day for exactly one reason — my father would write me a terrible poem. Daddy is a man of many accomplishments and charms, but those include neither poetry nor mushiness nor arts-n-crafts. Still, until my own kids came along, he would draw, free-form, a wobbly heart, and fill it with loving chicken scratch doggerel. This not only cracked me up, but also helped form my own definition of unconditional love. What’s love if not a willingness to venture outside your comfort zone and cheerfully muck around in whatever silliness makes somebody happy?
And so that became my lesson, in a way, as my sons entered the Mandatory Valentine phase of life — otherwise known as elementary school. I learned quickly to be open to and even embrace rituals that weren’t my cup of tea, as long as they delivered joy to my kids and other kids and nobody got hurt. Most parents are familiar with the drill: From kindergarten through 6th grade, students either bring no Valentine’s cards to school, or bring a card for every kid in the class. Which means, in practice, everybody brings a card for everybody. Resistance is futile.
Sure, it initially felt off-kilter to me to wade into the same heart-strewn shop aisle I’d always scorned, to help the boys choose that year’s package of Valentines. But to my surprise, the routine turned into more fun than I’d ever imagined. It’s another set of fleeting moments I miss like crazy now.
Right, well, “fleeting” is not how the moments felt then. At the time, I might have used the term all-consuming. That’s partly because, apples falling alarmingly close to the tree, my children are not always the most organized and efficient worker bees about deadlines. Year after year, on February 13th, my procrastinatory sons huddled together over the coffee table in a marathon session to select, address and sign these miniature tokens of friendship.
And as I sat back and watched, I marveled over how this boilerplate task transcended its dubious origin. For my guys, the Valentine’s Day Eve tradition became a contemplative bonding experience. It was much more than that, of course — it was also an excuse to demand more hot cocoa with marshmallows to give them energy to keep writing sooooooo many people’s names on soooooo many tiny envelopes. But as I suspect happens in households across the land, they really did use the occasion to sit still and think deeply about every one of their classmates. They considered what those kids liked, or might like, or could be open to liking if the opportunity arose... what made them laugh... what made them feel noticed... what made them, more or less, tick.
My boys painstakingly examined the contents of their boxes of cards and their class lists, to come up with suitable matches. They chewed the end of their pencils and analyzed their classmates to calculate whether they’d be most delighted with, say, a greeting from Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn or Elmer Fudd. They pondered and erased and sometimes started family debates over whether this tablemate who never so much as even watched the recess kickball game might be more pleased with a cartoon Valentine baseball bat or spiraling football... and why.
They elevated to an art form the simple act of paying attention, one by one, to every peer. In a quiet ritual of honoring them all -- meditating on their traits and quirks -- my sons found in every individual something worth a genuine xxoo.
Despite my aversion to the manufactured gifty lovebird holiday, my kids stumbled onto a sweet exercise in grace. With these store-bought sentiments as props, they built an understanding of how much people matter. They elevated to an art form the simple act of paying attention, one by one, to every peer. In a quiet ritual of honoring them all — meditating on their traits and quirks — my sons found in every individual something worth a genuine xxoo.
They say, now, that they remember almost none of this. They brush it off. They claim they only did it for the conversation hearts. But with any luck, the deeper meaning crept into their souls just enough, so that maybe, if the time comes, someday, they’ll be the kind of mensches who create ridiculous heart-shaped stanzas for their own little Valentines.
Not that I’ve gone soft on the holiday in general. I’m still right there with you, a dues-paying member in good standing of the V-Day Killjoy Anti-Everything Club. Now enough second-guessing my motivations and pass me those pink-foil Hershey’s Kisses. Right this second, please. Don’t mess with a malcontent on a mission.
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