In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t avoid the parade of clichés that indicate our inability to move past some brick headed Stone Age thinking about romance.

If you believe all the childish ads, comic strips and sitcom teasers, a man’s role is to present an awaiting damsel something stunning to demonstrate the depth of his affection. And it better not be any cheap-o grocery store flowers. Expensive stuff, like jewelry. But whatever it is, it had better be better—which is to say carry a heftier price tag—than whatever he came up with the year before.

Women are to sit home awaiting, offering nary a reminder and alternately occupying their minds with dreams of the diamonds and pearls and Mercedes Benz convertibles they deserve and fantasies of how much damage they’ll do with a rolling pin if the lout forgets and fails to ante up.

It is to laugh. If you love the Flintstones. Because these notions come to us from the time of beehives, skinny ties and tail fins on cars.

By courtesy of a cartoon.

I prefer to address the issue from the point of view of actual people whose theories are rooted in the real world of the 21st century.

“It’s impossible to generalize about expectations on Valentine’s Day,” author D.E. Rasso writes in Esquire magazine. “There’s plentiful ‘advice’ served up every year meant to ‘teach’ men about ‘what women really want.’ And—aside from our own, actually personal advice—it’s stupid. No one can say even in the broadest, blandest terms, how ‘women’—feel about this holiday.”

She says she and her husband haven’t dined out on V-Day since they were dating, adding that “the last time I received a stuffed animal or bouquet of red roses, I was still driving with a learner’s permit.”

The History Channel’s website says Valentine’s Day started as a pagan fertility festival, and the Christian church made it a day to reflect on the bravery of martyrs after St. Valentine’s execution for helping Christians bust out of Roman prisons. Rasso decries the modern iteration as a commercialized “pastiche of brinksmanship” in which men must quantify their love in the form of gifts calculated by the ability “to gauge how pissed off she’ll be if you don’t do the right thing.”

As though there’s not already enough to worry about.

In my household, February 14 isn’t just Valentine’s Day. It’s also my daughter’s birthday. To her, February 14 was not a mom-and-dad-go-out-for-dinner night. She expected the candles, chocolates and presents wrapped up with pretty bows to be for her.

When she was six.

Mary Jo and I, on the other hand, were adults—and we handled the “holiday” accordingly. As in, “Let’s just give each other small bags of M&Ms this year,” or “Since Valentine’s Day falls on a Thursday, let’s have a glass of wine and watch an episode of Scrubs after the kids are in bed, then hit the hay ourselves.”

Notice that I didn’t say either party was solely responsible for making such suggestions. Obviously a dude who can recall The Way-Outs lip synching badly in Fred and Wilma’s living room should be attentive enough to remember the Day of Love. But women hungry for l’amour certainly have no right to stew if they haven’t dished up even a single serving of a reminder.

“Men tend to be action-oriented in how they show their love by helping with the chores, repairing the garage door and bringing home a paycheck,” author Cindi McMenamin says in a blog post called How to Avoid Heartache on Valentine’s Day. “They can miss the mark when trying to convey their feelings. Often times, what they think will impress you doesn’t.”

If you want M&Ms, say so.

Valentine’s Day is not a contest or a trick question or, after fifth grade, getting out of math class to stuff punch-out cards with cartoons on them into shoe boxes. It’s about acting like grown ups who love each other and understand the demands of the real world. No martyrs. And, maybe, no concerns about fertility. Just good, old-fashioned affection, timeless and unblemished by the persistent gunk of an obnoxiously placed price sticker.

Thoughts, anyone? If the software here makes it impossible to post a comment, email me at rowrite@gmail.com and I’ll post it for you.

P.S. This is an actual Valentine’s Day heart full of custom M&Ms that Mary Jo got us as a couple’s gift this year. I had no idea she was doing it when I wrote this post. The M&Ms are scarlet, white and gray–our wedding colors (which I totally remembered), and instead of an M, each one says, “Gazebo.” You would have to have been there to understand why…but the only ones there at the time were Mary Jo and me.

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