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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

Romance, Wholesale And Retail

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February is not the right time for romance, but we have no choice. The unstoppable Valentine juggernaut is heading straight at us. Some people may have a hard time getting in the mood, especially if it starts snowing again.

Fortunately, there's a whole industry dedicated to being romantic for us, so we don't have to. Florists, restaurant owners and card manufacturers have the whole business under control. Romance can be accomplished with a couple of phone calls and a quick trip to the local card store.

There is a Valentine message for every taste, including bad taste. It all depends where you shop. The more up-market boutiques offer delicate cards with reproduction oil paintings, real lace, perfume, and poems by Shakespeare or W.B.Yeats. Fifty yards along, in the next strip mall, the message may be "Hey Babe," with further suggestions that cannot be repeated on Public Radio. You get the feeling that these things are imported wholesale from another planet, where the aliens have an unsteady grasp of the English language, and a deeply confused idea of human relationships.

The confusion is understandable, because Valentine's Day has changed so much. It started in Roman times as the day when partners for the next year were chosen by lottery. Love depended on the luck of the draw, and this was a day of tremendous excitement and anticipation. Over the centuries, February 14 became a special day for licit and (more often) illicit lovers - a day rich with romance and danger, when new relationships were begun.

But Valentine cards changed everything. The message of romance and danger has been progressively diluted in the interest of selling the maximum possible number of cards. Valentines are passed around in schools even, and you can get cards for all your relatives and your cat. Everybody must get one, because nobody must be left out. But when everyone gets a Valentine, it's like a flu shot: a moment of mild discomfort, and then nothing.

That's the fate of romance, in our busy modern age. Valentine's Day is about romance the same way that Memorial Day is about patriotism, and Ground Hog Day is about the long range weather forecast. It's a ritual occasion to celebrate something that we tend to forget the rest of the time.

A Valentine was once supposed to be a secret message to a special person, a shot in the dark. Romance is nothing without a little mystery, a little tension. The knights of medieval times had the right idea. They would plight their troth to an unattainable (usually married) lady, sing romantic songs to her from a safe distance, and then disappear off to the crusades for years, keeping the flame of love burning bright in their hearts. When they returned, if she happened to be free to marry, they would immediately leave on a new crusade. In this way, the fragile flame of their love was never spoiled.

As for the ladies, it must have been a great relief to them to be worshipped from afar – the farther the better. They were never compromised by an indiscreet card or box of chocolates and, of course, they all lived happily ever after.

Copyright: David Bouchier