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It’s time once again to welcome guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia, offering timely wisdom and incisively soothing commentary on modern romance.

Dear Miss P: Do women actually like jewelry, flowers, and candy?

PP: Miss P can hardly speak for all women. Some ladies surely swoon over such things, or pretend to, socialized as we are by advertisements in which women with perfect teeth and hair surrender meltingly into the arms of some suspiciously gorgeous male specimen the moment said male proffers one of these supposedly magical tokens. However, a would-be presenter of these traditional gifts—to sweethearts of any gender—must consider that each has its drawbacks.

Flowers are lovely, of course, but one has to consider what flowers have signified since ancient times: beauty is ephemeral and mortality ever imminent. Are we sure that’s the message we wish to send: You are lovely, my dear, but you will die? Come to think of it, when Valentine’s Day falls during Lent, flowers do indeed achieve a perfect balance between loving admiration and pious reflection that one is, in fact, dust. In any case, when cut flowers, after but a few brief days of this brief and mortal life, begin to droop, decay, and turn the vase-water stinky, guess who gets to dispose of the slimy mess? That’s right, the beloved they were meant to please. Memento mori.

Jewelry is particularly problematic because of the expense involved. Jewelry sparkles and may elicit gasps, but dollar-per-pound it is not a good value. You are better off with a bushel of apples or a half dozen nice winter squash.

As for candy, Miss P has noted that American holidays are either candy-intensive, booze-intensive, or both. One could create a chart, like this:

If holidays, anthropologically speaking, ritualize ways of grappling with mystery, apparently Americans grapple with mystery either through making ritual purchases that provide instant, sugary gratification, then disposing of the non-recyclable waste, sometimes in couch cushions—or they get themselves tipsy.

In any case, perhaps what people do not realize is that many women—since your question was about women specifically—are actually quite practical. If you wish to spend money to express affection for a particular woman, Miss P would suggest a battery-powered hedge trimmer.

Dear Miss P: I am a fourth-grade teacher, and I am sick to death of those stupid paper valentines that children bring to school. The school policy—to avoid children feeling left out—is that children must bring valentines for every child in the class. I spend most of the day managing the trading chaos and the flurry of infuriating little bits of paper. It’s a ridiculous waste of time when I have material to teach! What can I do?

PP: Miss P sympathizes with your plight. This custom is, as you are no doubt cognizant, a bad deal for parents as well, who now have yet another “parent homework” item on their list: purchase silly paper valentines. Add to this the inevitable frosting-laden cupcakes that must be baked or purchased, toted precariously to school, and whose consumption must be supervised by you, the teacher, followed by cleaning up the sticky mess on desks and on bright shining children’s faces.

You are, of course, still inadvertently teaching children even during all this chaos. You are teaching them that showing affection is a competitive obligation. And that even the appearance of social equity involves delicately calibrated social hierarchy. You can bet that children keenly observe who is giving out the coolest, licensed-character valentines (Frozen? Avengers?) and whose are lamely generic. As for those whose papery tokens of social aspiration include a box of candy hearts? These children are fighting for their place on the top of the social heap. (Although, Miss P has noted that the sayings on candy hearts these days are not as innocent as in days of yore. Even the formerly innocent “Be Mine” can now be interpreted as an objectifying gesture of dominance. Caveat emptor.)

What to do? You could send home notes to parents and launch an intensive anti-Valentine’s Day letter campaign. But perhaps a more subversive approach would prove more entertaining for you. You could spend the day (between cupcakes and paper-snippet-trading) teaching about the actual St. Valentines. That’s correct, plural: there were at least three, all of them martyred. The actual history here is murky—a good chance to point out to children that history is constructed and unstable—but no doubt your fourth graders will deeply appreciate the gross-out factor when you discuss the mechanics of beheading.

Then you can move on to the ancient Roman Feast of Lupercalia, supposedly another origin for our modern mid-February holiday. Lupercalia gives you the opportunity for experiential learning: it involves goat sacrifice. More gruesome fun for the children! Since this was a fertility ritual, you could also take this opportunity to get the children started on sex education. Perhaps you will need more goats for that part.

Once parents and administrators hear about all this, you may well have achieved your goal of banning all Valentine’s Day observances entirely.   

Dear Miss P: I’m distressed by the gender essentialism and heteronormativity of Valentine’s Day. Not to mention the idolizing of romance. Is it time to get rid of the day altogether?

PP: Love is glorious, and we need it to create civilizational bonds, but you are not alone in your discomfort. Even the most heteronormative couples find Valentine’s Day obligations perplexing and even annoying. A wise young person observed to Miss P that the shallower the relationship, the higher the anxiety about locking things down with the perfect flowers, candy, and romanticTM dinner.

People do find ways to protest. Couples secure in their relationship are able to carry on with the daily joys of coupledom, largely foregoing the consumerist gift taxes levied by Hallmark holidays. Instead, they enjoy the sorts of things that actually mark mature relationships, such as corralling the children/dog/cat, binge-watching Law & Order, or working through Turbo Tax.

Meanwhile, college student wags have dubbed Feb. 14 “Singles Awareness Day.” This is an apt protest against the expectation that college is a time for match-ups, hook-ups, and/or marital partner searches. It also serves as a wry and witty lament for those students not currently embroiled in any of these (secretly wistfully longed-for) distractions from their studies.

And you are no doubt aware of Galentine’s Day, a phenomenon inspired by the character Leslie Knope of Parks & Rec, in which women get together for a boozy brunch to celebrate female friendships. Complaints about this practice include the gender essentialist stereotype that all women enjoy boozy brunches (some do, some don’t), the way that gift-product purveyors have now begun marketing their wares as Galentine’s gifts (another innocent custom now entangled in commerce) and of course, the fact that Galentine’s Day excludes men.

Do men even wish for a similar practice? One wouldn’t want to gender essentialize. Besides, a parallel practice for men raises the troublesome question of what one would call it. Palentine’s Day feels too breezy. Malentine’s Day? Actually, “malentine” evokes the root mal- (bad) and thus seems the perfect term for something else entirely: demeaning social media comments or nasty tweets. As in: The comments under that post are stuffed with malentines.

In sum, Miss P agrees that in this day and age, the worship of heteronormative romance has become problematic for numerous reasons, not to mention cliché and frankly boring. One only needs to watch an episode or two of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette to witness this descent into campy absurdity. So perhaps you are correct in proposing an end to the silliness.

However, we do need something to get us through the doldrums of mid-February. President’s Day, in this political climate, is more likely to send us sinking deeper into despair. So perhaps we should depose eros from his naughty throne and focus on storge, philia, and agape. Miss P proposes: “Affection Day.”

On February 14, tell your children you adore them. Tell your friends they are dear to you. Tell your colleagues you … uh… appreciate them. Tell your relatives you’re fond of them despite everything. And rather than engaging the consumer economy, find some low- or no-cost affection channels. Send emoji-filled texts or email, post gentle quotes about human goodness on social media (eschewing all “malentines”), festoon the fridge with sticky notes and make a nice dinner or a batch of cookies. The more literary minded might avail themselves of this handy affectionate-Shakespeare-quote generator.

And how about practicing random acts of kindness to strangers, too? Go through your day on Feb. 14 being kind and encouraging to everyone, regardless of relationship status, gender identity, or whether or not they have perfect teeth and hair.

One could argue that every day should be Affection Day. Fair enough. A special day of emphasis wouldn’t hurt, though, would it? And if you should wish to make a small purchase or do a little baking, Miss P is especially fond of those crisp, heart-shaped sugar cookies with sprinkles, no frosting.  

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