There are two ways to look at Valentine's Day: the woman way and the guy way.
To a woman, Valentine's Day is the glorious day she's been planning for months, on which her beloved will express his undying devotion in a card that includes the phrases "so special," "so wonderful," "so beautiful" and "better than Cindy Crawford."
To a guy, Valentine's Day is a period of incarceration that occurs sometime in February (he's not sure exactly when), during which he is forced by candy, flower and greeting card executives to spend money frivolously and share his innermost feelings, not counting "I feel like eating at Fatburger."
These are the facts. I know them because when I told my boyfriend, Alec, that I was excited about spending our first Valentine's Day together, he rolled his eyes, mumbled something about his last girlfriend ("big trouble . . . totally forgot . . . Safeway . . . flowers . . . 1 a.m.) and said: "Couldn't you just write yourself a card and I'll sign it?"
I informed him that he wasn't going to get off that easy.
Ostensibly a holiday to celebrate love and affection, Valentine's Day doesn't always work out that way. Women hope for the moon, men grope for the right words, and enough pressure mounts to transform Ozzie and Harriet into Al and Peg Bundy.
"On Valentine's Day, a woman's expectations go sky high," says John Gray, a Mill Valley psychologist and author of the best-selling book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" (which my boyfriend refers to as "Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Earth"). "It's the Venutian sacred holiday of the world, like Super Bowl Sunday is for the Martians."
When only half of the population wants to worship, however, tensions arise.
"A woman has these expectations that if he loves me, he'll do something extra on this day--something big-time extra," Gray says. "But a man figures, 'Why do I have to do anything more on this day? It implies I didn't do enough on other days.' It almost comes across as a criticism."
Psychologist Leslie Pam, who hosts a KMPC radio call-in show with his wife, Ann Christie, says many men don't go all out on Valentine's Day because they don't see a payoff.
"Men think, 'What am I going to get for it? I can get sex when I want it, anyway.' A guy thinks, 'I'm here--that should be good enough for you.' "
But it never is.
"Women get resentful," Christie says. "For us, Valentine's Day has so much attached to it."
You can't blame Valentine's Day discord entirely on media and advertising hype. It's more an outgrowth of the opposite ways in which men and women look at romance.
Take me and Alec, for instance. To celebrate our six-month anniversary a few months back, I made a card listing 36 reasons I think he's so wonderful and picked out the perfect flannel shirt to match his olive green eyes.
And what did my sweet Alec do to commemorate this special occasion? He paid for the gas on our trip to Wyoming.
"Unleaded fuel!" I said. "You're such a romantic!"
As for my anniversary card, he accidentally left it on the bed at the Motel 6.
Ah, but I should not be so critical. According to the experts, I have not grasped one essential fact: Men, unlike women, do not have an innate appreciation for gooey cards.
"Men go, 'Hunh? You're rewarding me by telling me how you feel?' " Pam says.
So what does a guy consider romantic? For Alec, the answer seems to be dimming the lights, curling up with me on the couch and watching "Road Test Magazine" rate the Ford F150 full-size pickup.
For other men, experts say, the answer is sex.
"If a woman is coming on to him, implying that sex is imminent, that's very romantic," Gray says. "And when a woman is very appreciative of what a man does for her, that also spells romance for a man."
Women may not have a complete understanding of this, but neither do most men comprehend how women define romance.
"For women, romance is when a man says 'I love you,' and she doesn't have to ask--when he takes extra time to communicate his love," Gray says. "Women want tangible evidence that you've gone out of your way."
Left undiscussed and quietly simmering, these basic differences can come to a boil on Valentine's Day.
Last year, Susan Higgins and her boyfriend, Joe Bennett, agreed to exchange cards only. But Higgins, 25, a network distribution coordinator for Fox Broadcasting, admits she didn't take the agreement literally.
"I'm assuming, 'No way, he's not going to just get me a card.' I figured he'd at least get flowers. But no. He just got me a card--a sex card."
When she indicated she was less than thrilled, Bennett responded: "I thought of getting you a really sweet card, but. . . ."
"The eternal but ," Higgins says, sighing.
But . . . Bennett, 24, a UPS driver, can explain: "To me, I didn't need the affirmation, and I didn't understand why she needed it. I felt like, 'I'm here for you, so you should feel loved.' But that's not how it works."
Bennett made up for the incident by surprising Higgins with affectionate Post-It notes all over the apartment--in the microwave, on the plants, in the fridge, on the mirror.
"I was in heaven," Higgins says. "I tell him all the time that I need him to show me love, and he finally came around."
Bennett says many guys don't realize they can please a woman without forking over half their salary.
"Most of my friends see Valentine's Day in monetary terms--like, 'How much did you spend on your girlfriend?' " Bennett says. "That's just how we have been conditioned. That's how my father was."
Sam Zarifi, 26, a Los Angeles attorney, says all this pressure to perform on Valentine's Day makes men resentful.
"It almost becomes a romantic arms race between guys. TV and radio advertising goes crazy, and everyone asks, 'What are you sending your girlfriend?' At no other time of the year would people ask what I did for my girlfriend today. I have to top myself and every other guy by showing that I truly love her. I consider it an unnecessary intrusion into what I would be doing anyway."
Valentine's Day is doubly annoying, Zarifi says, because men have to make these romantic gestures without embarrassing themselves in front of their male friends.
"You try to maintain some of your macho composure," he says. "You don't want people to say, 'He's whipped.' "
Besides, Zarifi says, you just can't force a guy to be romantic.
"It's hard to create romance on demand if you're not Lord Byron. You can pass a law saying people must be romantic on Feb. 14th--and Valentine's Day basically amounts to that law--but it would be a lot more cost-effective and ultimately more valuable if you taught little boys that they should express their feelings when they're in love."
On the other hand, Zarifi concedes that for some romantically challenged guys, Valentine's Day can serve a legitimate purpose.
"It's necessary to remind a lot of guys that romance is more than playing video hockey together."
So what can be done to keep both sides happy on Valentine's Day?
For a woman, the first thing to do is let go of her resentment and understand that Valentine's Day is just not a guy thing.
"It's just not in man's nature," radio show host Pam says.
Then, a woman must tell her guy in plain English exactly what she wants.
"We can't expect men to read our minds," Christie, Pam's co-host, says. "We have to say, 'I want the flowers, and the store's down the hill.' It's a woman's obligation to teach her man how to appreciate her."
Pam says a guy is more likely to follow through if the woman prefaces the job description with, "I know this is going to sound silly. . . ."
Finally, the woman must graciously acknowledge whatever effort the guy makes.
"Try not to give him a hard time on Valentine's Day if he doesn't do everything perfectly," author Gray says. "The more you appreciate what he does, the more he'll be willing to take risks."
As for men, experts say they must surrender to the reality that they have to do something.
"Any guy who doesn't bring a Valentine is being stubborn," Pam says. "Don't put your head in the sand. Just pretend you're happy about doing it. All it takes is five minutes."
Many men feel like no matter what they do, it's not going to be good enough. But that's no excuse to quit trying.
"You know she has a preconceived notion about what the perfect gift is--all women do," Bennett says. "We have a challenge to hit that. Nine times out of 10 we're going to miss, but you can't give up."
Heeding all of this advice, I assured Alec that I don't expect him to recite a Shakespearean soliloquy outside my window. All I want is a card written in his very own handwriting that makes no mention of the NASCAR circuit and says something slightly more effusive than, "You're really not bad to hang out with."
He said he'd try.
Vest courtesy of ClothesTime/LingerieTime