Sixth grade Valentine's Day in Mrs. Raffel's class at Long Beach's Lindell School back in the Paleolithic ages of 1969 was quite a big deal. Valentine's Day cards flew from desk to desk with a light speed that wasn't to materialize until decades later with the advent of email. There was a card hierarchy with the mushiest of cards reserved for those girls you "really liked" and might have considered "going steady" with. If you didn't receive at least five or six cards, then you were not considered a social success. You could call it "low-tech 'friending.'" Early childhood brushes with Valentine's are the kind of things that travel with you through life, even into adulthood -- as the implications of the day are fraught with all kinds of ramifications many years on.
Teenagers, especially those who were in those awkward years or who were late bloomers, harbored no end of angst and anxiety as February 14th rolled around (I imagine that adolescence is still pretty similar even with today's enhanced hand-held technology) because teenage Valentine's was a Darwinian affair, clearly separating the popular from the not. As one progressed to college and one's 20s, whether or not you got cards wasn't nearly as significant as whether or not you had a date. Moving into relationships and marriage, Valentine's started to mean less and less to men and more and more to women. Woe be unto the myopic dolt who forgot the occasion or, who, even worse, didn't do the right thing or enough for their wife or girlfriend or in a moment of temporary insanity, ordered the wrong kind of roses from the wrong florist!
Valentine's Day, coming as it does towards the back end of winter, serves as a literal bright spot in the otherwise blah gray monotony of the season. The holiday arrives when more daylight is making itself felt each day and with that, more Vitamin D, so folks start to come alive a bit more and it signals that spring will soon make an appearance. After Christmas, Chanukah and New Year's, winter takes on a grim patina in most of the Northern Hemisphere and an injection of love, romance and joie de vivre is good for the soul (and the jewelry, greeting card, candy, flower and restaurant industries in what otherwise might be a very slow month). Valentine's Day prompts many a married couple make an effort to break the routine, which is a good thing in and of itself. While the holiday got started as a Christian saints' day, it was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar in 1969 and in America has essentially become a secular celebration of love and romance.
Romance is a big business because it addresses one of humanity's highest aspirations -- finding true love as a salve for its polar opposite -- loneliness. Regardless of Valentine's Day, assuaging and vanquishing loneliness is something people spend big on. In the 20th and 21st Centuries whole industries took off because of the mitigating effects they had on being alone in the isolating modern urban industrial era. To wit: movies, radio, recorded music, television, the internet (including the huge industry of dating websites), email, cell phones (well, that's also for business...), text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter. The need for connectedness is innate and pervasive. Before industrialization and urbanization, folks had their towns, villages, families and communities. Today, sadly, many mainly have their hand-held multi-media devices where you can be "plugged in" and never be alone for as long as the batteries last.
You can have upwards of 800 Facebook "friends," but have very few real ones on a corporeal level. You can work in a huge office building but spend your day mostly alone. You can live in a giant apartment building but not know your neighbors. You can go to big parties but only know a handful of people there and not meet more than another one or two. You can be in a marriage or a relationship yet feel lonely due to a lack of communication or affection.
Man's yearning for love may even exceed his desire and passions for money, success and fame. Babies die without love. Adults turn into Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter (from It's a Wonderful Life) or "go postal" without it. Speaking of It's a Wonderful Life, one reason this is one of America's most popular and enduring films is because it is in essence a love story and the idealized wife of Jimmy Stewart (played sublimely by Donna Reed) is what every man wants when they don't want the blonde floozy Violet Bick.
In 1966 the great Percy Sledge hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with his When a Man Loves a Woman. It's number 54 in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Michael Bolton also hit number one with it in 1991. The song's lyrics are completely appropriate for Valentine's Day and it sums up the value men place on love:
"When a man loves a woman
Can't keep his mind on nothing else
He'll trade the world
For the good thing he's found
If she's bad he can't see it
She can do no wrong
Turn his back on his best friend
If he put her down
When a man loves a woman
Spend his very last dime
Tryin' to hold on to what he needs
He'd give up all his comfort
Sleep out in the rain
If she said that's the way it ought to be..."
An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Percy Sledge as "late." Percy Sledge is alive.