Love has never been so difficult


VALENTINE'S Day used to be a fairly innocuous occasion when a man could -- into a drug store, pick up a sappy Hallmark card and cheap box of candy, and be relatively certain the woman in his life would just about turn cartwheels when he arrived home.

Sadly, all that has changed. Now the very same gifts are likely to earn a sharp blow to the head from a dinner plate and an evening alone in the tool shed with a small space heater.

Instead of appreciating the essential beauty of a card and candy, women have been seduced by images of romantic dinners for two in snobby French restaurants, moonlight cruises around polluted, foul-smelling harbors, cozy weekend get-aways at luxury hotels that feature garish mirrored ceilings and heart-shaped bathtubs . . . my God, it goes on and on.

The point is, choosing a Valentine's Day gift now requires a good deal of thought and effort, which is why so many men become anxious and depressed as the day approaches.

As to exactly who spoiled Valentine's Day for men, it probably does no good to get into that here since . . . well, OK, I'll give you my theory.

I see a shadowy cabal of radical feminists meeting on a farm somewhere in the Midwest 10 or so years ago.

Between workshops with such colorful titles as "Men or Toxic Waste: Which is More Dangerous to Your Health?" a lengthy manifesto is secretly hammered out, the lead paragraph stating: "Sisters, why should we settle every Feb. 14 for some stupid candy and a lame card that reads: 'Valentine, ours is a strange and wonderful relationship . . . you're strange and I'm wonderful!?' "

The document goes on to demand that men be more creative in their choice of Valentine's Day gifts, instead of simply sprinting into the local Rite-Aid at closing time and barking at the startled clerk behind the register: "Those chocolate marshmallow things

on sale?"

Flushed from this triumph and warmed by the revolutionary fervor in the room, the radicals emerge from the meeting whooping and shooting fists into the air, convinced that it's only a matter of time before their thinking is adopted by mainstream American womanhood.

Unfortunately, in many parts of the country, it has, judging by the pressure men feel to come up with suitable Valentine's Day gifts. Apparently, women are not immune to this pressure, either, or how else do you explain the whole concept of boudoir photography?

As I understand it, this involves a woman taking complete leave of her senses and reporting to a seedy photography studio with a cutesy name like Fantasy Fotos (often owned, for some strange reason, by a man named "Mel" with several gold chains around his neck.) There, she is instructed to change into the skimpy costume of her choice (Playboy bunny, French chambermaid, Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Bangkok stripper, you get the idea.)

Next she is instructed to strike a suitably provocative pose, reclining seductively on a canopied bed or leaning against a brass pole with a pouty look.

The finished portrait, complete with the sort of garish frame normally found only atop a piano in a bordello, is then presented to her boyfriend or husband on Valentine's Day, no doubt with an appropriately warm inscription such as: "For a good time, call Carol at 555-1234!"

Look. I am certainly not going to sit here in judgment of anyone who would choose to give this sort of, ahem, gift to her significant other.

If a woman wants to parade before the camera like a cheap little floozy, who am I to say whether that is right or wrong?

By the way, what exactly does a man do with this sort of picture?

Does he put it on his desk at work, inviting the attention of leering colleagues and supervisors? ("So that's Carol with the riding crop, eh?")

Or does he place it in a prominent position in his home, where the kids might get a load of mom dressed tastefully as a heavily mascaraed Filipino madam, setting in motion a series of tearful ,, therapy sessions with juvenile authorities?

It's a dilemma, no question about it.

The point is, in this never-ending search for unique Valentine's Day gifts, we sometimes forget that the simplest gestures often work the best.

I'm thinking here along the lines of, oh, a nice card.

And maybe a box of candy.

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