WHAT HOLIDAY is dreaded more than Valentine's Day? Not enough of an excuse to eat a big meal or take a day off from work, but more than just a vehicle of the greeting card industry, it's an anxiety trigger of the most insidious order. So cloaked in cheesy packaging it makes Groundhog Day look downright sacred, this annual nod to Cupid is a cultural mandate not only to have a nervous breakdown but to feel like an idiot for doing so.
Let's face it, Valentine's Day is a consumer ploy, but we take the bait anyway. The National Retail Foundation estimates that in 2006, the average consumer spent $100.89 to commemorate Feb. 14. The U.S. census has found that 15% of women send flowers to themselves on Valentine's Day, and it's even been reported that 3% of pet owners buy valentines for their pets, making the phrase "be mine" a bit redundant.
If you're like me, you're probably feeling pretty cheated — $100.89? That's a lot of flowers, Mylar balloons or cat treats. You'd have to move the decimal point one notch to the left to represent how much I've ever spent — or been the beneficiary of — on Valentine's Day. But I suspect that figure accounts not only for roses and chocolate-covered cherries purchased by the side of the freeway but for the grand dame of Valentine's Day gifts, the diamond engagement ring.
I've been thinking about those little stones because I recently saw the movie "Blood Diamond" (I know, I'm a little behind; I hear "Talladega Nights" is good too). This is a gory, quasi-political thriller that suggests (in terms that its target male audience can understand and then choose to ignore) that the relationship between diamonds and romance is rooted not in ancient mating rituals but in Machiavellian marketing techniques. And it's right. Not that Zales would ever admit it, but most diamonds are neither particularly rare nor particularly precious. As for that "two months' salary" rule of thumb? It's not advice from Grandpa. It's ad copy from the 1980s.
But romance and propaganda have long made steamy bedfellows, and besides, the whole notion of bling-crazed bachelorettes is as much a media creation as the aura of the ring itself. Are all women chasing a rock as if it were the last bus out of Fresno? Of course not. Still, in matters of the heart, most of us, regardless of our material aspirations, romantic situations or even genders, have a tendency to sweat the small stuff — like the need for, not to mention the size and shape of, a diamond ring — because the big stuff (even if it's really good stuff) is just too scary.
Along with the existence of God, the meaning of life and "Scooter" Libby's former job description, love is one of those concepts that becomes more confusing and intangible the harder we think about it. That's doubly true of romantic love, which is built around the illogical premise that infatuation can be shoehorned into a permanent state of being. It's no surprise, then, that we channel our romantic passions not only into the object of our love but the objects that represent love.
Diamonds, of course, are the flagship of this franchise. More than just a girl's best friend, they're trinkets that a girl's other friends can compare and analyze to the point where the trinket's procurer is all but irrelevant. That's been especially true in the last 20 years or so — as feminism softened its stance, the economy boomed and a flashy diamond became less a symbol of patriarchy than a sign of class status. There are even "right-hand" diamond rings now, such as the "Ah ring," for single women. ("Ah" stands for "available" and "happy," but I suspect "affluent" and "hyper-competitive" would work too.)
But whether we're longing for an engagement ring, an Ah ring or an end to this lunatic ring cycle altogether, it's almost inevitable that the blustery sales weeks leading up to Valentine's Day intensify our fixation on the accouterments of love rather than on love itself.
Sure, we're intellectually capable of seeing the flowers, the candy and even the diamond for what they are — expressions of the inexpressible. We know this is an assembly-line holiday. But we've also been conditioned to see it as a day of romantic reckoning, an occasion to take stock of our own lovableness. And that's a big responsibility for a holiday when the banks don't even close.
Excited yet? I know I am (and so is my pet). As for the shiny gems, just remember this: A diamond may be the gift of a lifetime, but Mylar balloons are non-biodegradable. What says "forever" better than that?
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