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When Cupid's arrow misses the mark // Too sweet to be believed

(ran TP edition)

When that cupid guy starts flying around this time of year, he's usually armed.

And who would blame him _ Valentine's Day can be dangerous.

No other holiday is fraught with such potential for interpersonal misunderstanding, such unrealistic expectations, such an eye-jarring pink-and-red color scheme.

As Hallmark and company would have it, of course, today is the day when people just ooze love and eat by candlelight and buy each other stuff.

Like roses _ an estimated 90-million of them.

Or chocolates _ about $243-million worth.

Or cards _ numbering almost a billion, including the $4.75 number we found at Westshore Mall, enscripted in gold with the message:

"I love you so/ for doing things/ to show how much you care/ For bringing out/ the best in me/ for always being there/ For making life so special, and for lots of reasons, too/But most of all, I love you, Dear/ For simply being you!"

Such sanitized, store-bought nicey-niceness, however, was not evident in the holiday's historic beginnings.

In fact, the original Valentine was beheaded for his attempts to promote love. He was a Christian priest in the third century who performed marriages in defiance of Roman Emperor Claudius II's ban on matrimony. The Catholic church celebrated his feast day on Feb. 14.

Saint Valentine's Day took on colorings of passion and romance probably because it fell on the older Roman fertility celebration known as Lupercalia. As the Academic American Encyclopedia tells us, it was celebrated thus:

"After sacrificing goats and a dog on the Palatine Hill, young men called Luperci raced around the borders of the hill striking those they met with whips made of the goatskins. Women who were struck were ensured of fertility and of easy delivery of children."

(The moral of this story is: If somebody named Luperci asks if he can be your Valentine, say no.)

In retrospect, these seemingly incongruous origins for the holiday set the tone for certain tendencies toward emotional martyrdom and self-flagellation that wise observers have come to associate with Valentine's Day.

"I've seen people get devastated if they don't have someone to be their Valentine, or if they don't have a Valentine who showers them with certain kinds of gifts," says Lisa Bentsen, a former marriage counselor who now works as a matchmaker. "They get the idea that this magic romance will just appear on that day."

And their delusions are abetted by umpteen TV and newspaper stories featuring sweet old couples who have been married for 75 years, or "The Most Romantic Man in America."

The solution, it would seem, would be to temper our expectations with a dose of realism, and to maintain a sense of humor about the whole gooey-sweet mess.

The folks at Kaplan's Muskrat Love Website (www.kaplan.com/holiday/muskrat1.html) may have the right idea, with their "Revolutionary Wooing Tools" (among them love potions and spells), "The "Apology note generator,"("Dear woman of my dreams, I'm the lowest form of life for not putting the toilet seat down.") and the "Dear John/Jane Letter Tutor," with "hateful words and phrases ready to cut and paste into your letter."

The site also has links called "Darkness Visible: Information on Clinical Depression," and "True Cardiological Pain: Never Mind the Anguish of Heartbreak, What about Heart Attack?"

And then there are all kinds of tales of romantic woe that can put it in perspective for you, even make you feel like a Valentine's Day at home alone with Seinfeld reruns is better than getting stuck on a date with Mr. or Ms. Nosferatu.

We have compiled a list of locally based horror stories (see accompanying boxes), but there are others, many others.

In fact, hundreds are collected in a book called Dates from Hell by Katherine Ann Samon. The following is told by a 34-year-old golf instructor from Tampa named Ginger:

. . . It was our third date. I'd met him through a video dating service.

We had just returned from a formal dance and were at his house, having a drink. He hadn't made a move, and the anticipation was wrecking me.

Finally he asked if I wanted to see the view from his bedroom balcony, and I played along, knowing that the view was the same ploy as the classic "Would you like to see my etchings?"

He sat on the bed. I sat on the bed. When was he going to make a pass? What were we waiting for? It was up to me.

I was about to kiss him, but he was energetically kicking off his shoes. So I took off my heels.

He took off his socks, and I was confused.

He swayed toward me, and just as I was moving my head into a kiss position, he said, "Do you mind if I pick my toes?"

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