Labor of Love

Greg Dawson muses on men’s most challenging day of the year.

With Valentine’s Day looming, may I pre-emptively offer a stereotype that happens to be true, which is what makes it a stereotype. Men are not hardwired for romance. For procreation, yes. For hearts and flowers, not so much.

We are hardwired for football, cooking over open fire, cracking our knuckles, and weeping when an underdog American wins Olympic gold. Are there exceptions to this stereotype? Of course. Sadly, for my wife, she is not married to one.

Much as I love Candy, my wife of 42 years, and have tried clumsily to show it in other ways, I don’t have the goods to be a Hallmark/Harlequin romantic with the pecs of Fabio and the poetry of Wordsworth. 

I offer Fabio’s poetry and Wordsworth’s pecs.

Valentine’s is the toughest day on the calendar for most men. It’s right there on the magnetized insurance company calendar on the fridge, but it’s not on our radars, which usually are tuned to ESPN or nothing at all. We need to be reminded. You see us in the express lane at Publix on Valentine’s Day clutching roses and boxes of chocolates.

My memories of Valentine’s Day go back decades to grade school when we chased girls on the playground at recess without fully understanding why. In the same clueless spirit, we exchanged Valentine’s cards with every girl in class, but also the boys who rubbed snow in our faces at recess. Most of those boys are now bulls in the china shop of romance. The curious one-for-all unisex card exchange continues at the elementary level.

“It does still go on, but they upped their game,” says the mother of a first-grader on our street. “Now kids give out cards with a gift—a pencil that matches the card or candy of some sort. Some kids even make homemade cards for friends they think are ‘special.’ ”

Greater ethnic and religious diversity, even nutritional concerns, have altered Valentine’s Day in a few places. A grade school in Massachusetts with students from 67 cultures banned Valentine’s cards and candy over cultural equality issues and guidelines regulating candy. Students were encouraged to give “friendship” cards.

This triggered predictable apocalyptic rhetoric online:

“Friendship cards? Isn’t that special! And so another American tradition dies in the name of ‘diversity.’ I may puke.”

Everyone just needs to take a chill pill. Better yet, eat a handful of candy hearts, as irresistible as they are indigestible, which serve as cultural barometers with updated messages such as “friend me,” “text me” and “dulce” (sweet in Spanish). 

Irreverence, snark and pop culture have crept into cards for adults. A photo of Taylor Swift and the message: “Be mine like for two weeks.” A card with a picture of Pope Francis’ grim-faced predecessor, Benedict: “Baby, I resigned to be with you.”

But as with everything in America, the most powerful influence shaping Valentine’s Day is commercialism. Just ask the man who “canceled” Valentine’s Day at Ocoee Middle School, Principal Mark Shanoff.

He did not, but that’s the way an Orlando TV station misplayed the steps Shanoff took to rein in commercialism and keep his school from becoming 1-800-Flowers Middle School. He’d been through card exchanges as a grade school principal but was not prepared for what he found at Ocoee.

“My first year there were deliveries of balloons, flowers and candy, the likes of which I had never seen,” he says. “Balloon bouquets took up whole corners of classrooms and became a huge distraction. It was difficult to run instruction.”

The next year, Shanoff ordered that all deliveries be stored in conference rooms and distributed at the end of the day. With 150 to 200 deliveries, “the office staff had to essentially suspend business’’ to handle all of them, he says.

Last year, Valentine’s Day was on Saturday. “I felt it was well within reason to request that parents withhold deliveries to school and arrange for deliveries to be made to homes.”

Except two or three parents didn’t get the memo or ignored it. One rebuffed parent contacted a TV station, which reported Shanoff had “canceled” Valentine’s Day.

He has to laugh. The same week Shanoff was accused of being the Grinch of Valentine’s Day, he was sitting on the living room floor helping his 4-year-old daughter with cards for her preschool classmates.

“She was so meticulous. She wanted to make sure she got everyone’s name copied correctly.”

Her choice of cards? Disney princess. Dulce. You don’t have to be a born romantic to love that some things never change.

Categories: Column