The thinking man’s valentine

February 8, 2013

With Valentine’s Day approaching this week, I know more than a few guys who will spend the next few days in frantic denial, petrified that something will be expected of them. I’ve addressed this column to guys, but it could apply equally to a certain percentage of women.

Please understand: I have deep compassion for y’all. Despite being a bit of a romantic, I resent the cravenly cheesy and commercial nature of this so-called “holiday”; my friend Laura calls it an “assault holiday.” I especially cringe at the way it forces couples who are tiptoeing their way through the morass of early courtship to make leaps that can land them in quicksand. And being single on Valentine’s Day? Let’s just say I remember one Feb. 14 years ago when the only acknowledgment I received was from a homeless guy who said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, gorgeous.” I briefly considered marrying him.

Even stable couples struggle with the nuances of Valentine’s Day. If your woman will be appeased only by something sparkly from Tiffany’s, you may be with her for reasons other than her soulfulness, but at least you know what to do. Personally, I think there is no such thing as too much chocolate, but as a Valentine’s gift I might find it too predictable, unless perhaps my man were to dream up an original way of delivering it. One of my favorite romantic gestures gone wrong is the “Sex and the City” scene in which Samantha covers her naked body with sushi, then waits in vain for her man, who gets delayed at work as the dish dries up.

For guys who are just trying to keep their girlfriend/wife/lover from being hurt and resentful and sending them to emotional Siberia for a time, borrow a phrase from my hero Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. Navigating Valentine’s Day is just a matter of harnessing a superpower that all men have but don’t use nearly enough. That is the power of the small but thoughtful gesture. The operative word here is “thoughtful,” which, just to be clear, means you have to do this thing called “thinking.”

Yes, people do that. My ex, who remains a good friend, was a master of the whimsical, one-of-a-kind gesture, and it saved the day on innumerable occasions. One year, after forgetting my birthday, he led me to his garden and showed me the bright-green row of baby lettuce spelling out my name, which he had planted a few weeks earlier. Even though a deer had eaten half of the “Y,” all was forgiven. After 9/11, he arrived at my apartment with a boxful of duct tape, batteries and a respirator — a brilliantly caring gift he was able to pick up at Lowe’s on one of his regular runs. One Valentine’s Day he showed up with a necklace he had made from broccoli and asparagus. It was surprisingly attractive, and its utter goofiness delighted me. Then we ate it.

My friend Tina told her ex-boyfriend about her obsession with a particular author, and he asked her, “Is there anything by him you haven’t read?” There was one book, and he immediately went out and got it for her. This happened many, many years ago, but it’s still the first thing that popped into her head when I asked her about memorably romantic moments. She just adored the fact that he was paying attention.

These things work, dear males, because the true path to a woman’s heart is to let her know that you’re thinking about her. The main assassin of tender feelings is not that you are cheap or pathologically unable to express emotions. We know about that kind of thing already. But not thinking about us? That’s a soul killer.

So, while there’s still time, put on your thinking cap and ponder that special person in your life. It shouldn’t be too hard to come up with something specific and unique that you have observed about her — a fondness for hedgehogs, an attachment to the movie “Clerks,” a weakness for crème brûlée, an obsession with a certain band or a craving for mismatched antique teacups. Then find a way to convert that understanding into a gift. All the better if it’s something you have to make or order or plan in advance. Combining the thoughtful gesture with an endearing display of your unique creative gifts is also a win.

Your superpower gesture or gift need not be expensive or traditionally romantic. It just needs to demonstrate that you’ve noticed your Valentine. Because even in this day and age of instant consumer gratification, one thing none of us can buy for ourselves is the gift of being understood.

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