James Lileks
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When some schools started to discourage Valentine’s Day card exchanges, boomer parents scoffed. “Nonsense! When I was a kid, we were forced by social convention to send mass-made expressions of vague romantic sentiments to everyone in our class, and we turned out OK.”

But really, it was bad. We had to give them to everyone. Even the kid who beat me up while he was on crutches. No doubt I looked through the pack from Ben Franklin, hoping I’d find the right sentiment:

Hey, Valentine, I’m drawing a blank

Hope you die in a septic tank.

And there’d be a picture of crutches floating in a vat of red. But no, it was all bland stuff, and you’d have to send something like this to your tormentor:

On Valentine’s Day, the bird says tweet!

It means birds think you’re awful neat.

Then you’d cross out “neat.” You didn’t have to sign your name, so maybe the bully would walk home, looking nervously at the birds. “How long have they been talking about me?” He’d change his ways, you were sure.

But, of course, he wouldn’t. He’d bring a slingshot to school the next day. He’d be the last one to class, look us all over slowly, and say, “The birds ain’t saying nothing anymore.” Then he’d take his seat in the back, where he would make flatulence noises with his hand and armpit during the filmstrips.

In the fifth grade I had a wretched, heart-rending crush on a girl whose name is now used for a popular voice-activated computer assistant, and don’t think I haven’t said, “Hey, Siri, did you even know I existed?” (She feigns incomprehension.) Had I been able to see into our futures back then, I suppose I would have been delighted to know that one day Siri would go with me wherever I went, but a bit confused about the part where she lives in a little glass slab and mostly says things like: “In half a mile, turn right on County Road 14.”

Anyway: I don’t remember which card I sent, but I must have agonized over it. The design and verse had to express my raging devotion. Maybe I could write my own:

Roses are red, I’m a bit porky,

Violets are blue, you’re a bit storky.

Life has its lessons and I say we learn ’em,

Even though I only come up to your sternum.

Whatever I sent, I’m sure it was delivered with studied nonchalance. Everyone had a bag taped to their desk, and you’d go around and deliver your valentines. If your crush had completed her rounds and was seated at her desk, the mortification level was high, because you imagined something else might happen. She might lean over and stop your delivery: “No. Give it to me. I want to save it, for last.”

“Are you OK?” Mother says, snapping you from your breakfast reverie. “You look flushed.”

Like I say, I don’t remember what I sent, but I do remember trying not to make a show of ripping open every envelope and throwing the valentines over my shoulder — “Junk! Garbage! Nonsense!” — as I tried to find hers.

And, finally, there it was. There was a picture of a cowgirl, lassoing a fat, happy calf.

Hey podner, I’m ropin’ up some Valentines Wishes for You

There was no way to spin this. This was, at best, the blandest card in the pack. At worst, she was ropin’ up Valentine wishes that weren’t hers but had wandered over from the lone prairie. At super-extra-worst, I was the fat, happy calf she literally had on a string.

“Podner” was, of course, a colloquial corruption of “partner,” so I could sink all my hopes in that. Or I could stand up and say, “That’s just mean! And you know what? Forty-nine years from now I won’t be plump and will tell everyone in the newspaper about you. And I will say to my little glass machine, ‘Siri, play me the Cowsills,’ and she will say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t find the Cowsills in your iTunes library.’ And then I’ll say, ‘OK. Alexa, you play me the Cowsills,” and she will because I have Amazon Prime, and you’ll be sorry.”

In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.

I’m also glad Daughter’s past all that. I’m glad I’m not single, silently griping at feeling marginalized on the Official Day of Love. As my wife and I approach our third decade of marriage, we reassure each other: “Don’t worry about a card. It goes without saying.”

But come Valentine’s Day morn, there’s a card anyway, because it never hurts to remind someone that you love them. Perhaps that’s the best argument for keeping Valentine’s Day in schools. Those cards don’t mean anything — until one day, they do. And that’s the best day you’ve ever had.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks