Emory Report

February 9, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 20

First Person:

Valentine's lament: Is this
the best of times for lovers?

This is a bad time of year for singles-all those hearts and flowers and sentimental cards and syrupy sweet Valentine messages. It turns your stomach, especially if you are still hoping that true love is just around the corner.

St. Valentine's day began as a festival for young lovers. It dates back more than 2,000 years, to the Roman Feast of Lupercalia. Traditionally, February was the month by which birds had chosen their mates for the coming breeding season. So our ancestors fixed on Feb. 14 for a celebration of the human mating instinct. At Lupercalia unmarried men and women drew their lots for their next partner, saving a fortune in classified ads, flowers, Valentine's cards, chocolates, candlelight dinners and all the other paraphernalia of do-it-yourself courtship.

What you see now in your local card shop is the victory of commerce over biology. All those red plush hearts and chocolate boxes have nothing to do with the real purpose of St. Valentine's Day, which was to get started on the breeding season. Looking at the racks of Valentines in my local pharmacy, one would think that Feb. 14 was dedicated to family values. The first several feet of the rack are filled with Valentines for husbands and wives. But it is too late for Valentines after being married. Receiving a Valentine from a spouse is like reading the safety instructions in an aircraft after the wings have fallen off.

It grows worse, and more perverse, moving down the track. There are cards for mothers and fathers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, babies, dogs, goldfish, the U.P.S. delivery man and even (very kinky) "From the Two of Us to the Two of You." Right at the far end, just before the pharmacy counter, and conveniently beside the vitamin pills, there are a few cards for lovers.

But even there, passions don't seem to run high. The cards are bureaucratically divided into little segments labeled "Sweetheart/Masculine," "Sweetheart/Feminine," "Love/Humor" and so on. That was not how the ancient Romans did it. The messages are bland and unsexy, with nauseous little poems "Straight From My Heart," written by some hack in a card factory in Ohio.

Alas, Mr. Hallmark has diluted the Valentine message to sell more cards. The truth is that St. Valentine's Day is all about sex and finding a partner.

From what I hear, it's not easy finding a partner these days. Women complain that all the good men are taken and that the only single men are wimps and losers. That is an understandable mistake. The good men only look good from a distance. Close up, they are just more wimps and losers who happen to be married. On their side men complain that in the age of equality all dates are blind, and that they never know from one minute to the next which particular version of Madonna is sitting on the other side of the restaurant table.

The trouble is that there are too many romantic illusions in the air, and both sides expect too much from the opposite sex. Maybe we should go back to older, more practical ways of choosing a partner: a lottery, as in the original Feast of Lupercalia, or a marriage market.

Public marriage markets still flourish in some parts of the world. A recent television documentary showed such a market in Morocco, and some of the hopeful brides and grooms were interviewed on camera. One man said, "I want a woman with strong legs to carry wood from the mountains." A young woman said, "I want a man with money and lots of goats." Now that's what I call truth in advertising. No danger there of romantic smoke getting in your eyes. No heart-shaped chocolate boxes to confuse the issue.

The public marriage market seems like an idea whose time has come again. Roosevelt Field (N.Y.) would be a good place. All the singles could gather there once a week with little placards stating what they want and what they are willing to settle for. It is not very romantic, but it might work better than the present system.

But some people still yearn for true love and warm cuddles and commitment. If that is your heart's desire, here is a word of wisdom from a female friend who has been on the singles scene for several years.

Her advice is to look for the Valentines that come with a teddy bear and then keep the bear and dump the Valentine. Most teddy bears have labels, so you know exactly what you are getting. "All new materials. Made in U.S.A. Fun for all ages. Nontoxic. Hard wearing." How many men can claim as much? Your teddy bear will always be ready for a cuddle. It will listen to everything you have to say, never comment on your weight, and never ever compare you to any of its previous owners.

And a teddy bear is forever. Once you take its label off, it is yours for life.

-David Bouchier

David Bouchier is an essayist and commentator heard regularly on public radio. This article first appeared in the Feb. 13, 1994, issue of The New York Times and is used with permission.

Return to February 9, 1998 contents page