F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

Such cruel punishment
by Ryan Douglas

nce again, the abbreviated month is upon us. And while February may be short on days, it certainly isn't short on hype.

For starters, the first few days are stolen by Groundhog Day and all its associated hurly. Grown men and women alike traditionally waste away the beginning of the month looking for their shadows while small, furry rodents across the nation develop acute scopophobia, the abnormal fear of being seen.

As if Punxsutawney Phil and his parade of shadow stalkers aren't enough to taint this tiny month, St. Valentine's Day finishes the job, landing heavily – smack in the middle of the month – like a heaving blimp inferno. Yes, February marks the month of love, when history recalls countless rituals of feast and fertility.

Valentine's Day is a clean alternative to some of the more bloodthirsty pagan rituals of spring, which the Romans found so endearing. The days following the glory of the groundhog build to crescendo as we scamper into the velvety stew of passion, romance and fertility that is Valentine's.

This time of year, love lurks around every corner. You'll find it creeping about alleyways, cowering under rocks, lurking in hallways, napping in nooks, crannies and coveys. You won't have to go rifling through your trousers to find love this month. It will come to you in an e-mail, a fax or a phone call. You will trip over it on your way to the shower, and it will follow you in, watching you bathe.

Strange and ominous signs of love are abundant. The likeness of Cupid, the ascendant of chaos, can be seen everywhere during the month, drifting from singles bar to strip joint. Sometimes he's wearing a diaper and sometimes a robe, but always he is brandishing wares for your purchasing convenience.

Love is for sale in the grocery store; acres of people stand in line to sift through scads of heart-shaped things that gather in piles. Love is on the dessert menu at your favorite restaurant; you can buy it in the men's restroom from a machine. These are the modern symbols of love; distinct in their meaninglessness, available for purchase and consumption by a lust-driven consumer sector.

So with all of this love in the air, why do so many of us feel so miserable? How many nights of dreamless sleep are toiled away in the short and awkward evenings preceding this annual festival of sentiment? While the romance ought to coat our tongues with warmth and fuzziness, why are they instead laced with the bitter taint of vitriol?

The reason, of course, is because Valentine's Day too often is a winless proposition. Those of us lucky enough to have an object for our affection feel overly compelled and pressured to convey the right emotion, say the right words, feel the right way, or, most importantly, buy the right thing.

Getting it right on The Big Day is even harder than usual because of the myriad of logistical obstacles the tradition places on love-givers. Restaurants are booked solid, the price of roses triples and wax candles are sold out for miles. You have to stand in line to buy chocolates at the mall. Panic and hysteria own the streets. Even now, the pressure is mounting. Can you feel the clock ticking?

So the big question is: What will you be holding in your hand when the clock strikes twelve on Valentine's Day?

Will it be just the right thing, or will it be something you scrounged up from the drugstore in a sweaty panic with only minutes to spare? Perhaps it will be something you made, or something you got from someone else last year.

What matters is that you give something good. Because if what you give is not good enough, you can count on having another Valentine's Day that you aren't going to be able to forget, no matter how hard you try. Valentine's Day is often pivotal for any relationship. Minor mistakes may inalterably spoil your merriment for the rest of the week, the year ... or your life.

Last year I spent the entire day hiding from the love parade at the office where I worked. Every 15 minutes a new and elaborate bouquet would arrive, borne by a bewildered, overworked delivery boy. Flowers, chocolates and balloons flooded the office. Wave after wave, love washed in with the restlessness of the waxing tide. All the while, the riptide pulled me down until I cowered beneath my desk like a reptile hiding from the sun. The shame of being the only one in the office without a balloon tied to his desk left me drowned and bloated with humiliation.

Such cruel punishment should be reserved for the most perverse social offenders and thieves. But the horror of Valentine's Day strikes too often at the unsuspecting and the unprepared. In the end, I tuned the TV into love and spent the evening kissing a box of chocolates that was left over from Christmas – waiting for the day to end and the sun to wash away its memory.

This year, I think I'm going to call in sick.

See more from Ryan in our archives.

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