It was customary when I was in grade school to bestow a valentine upon every person in one’s class. These valentines were not of the handmade or heartfelt variety, but rather bought in bulk from CVS, from the red-cellophane aisle, on the shelf next to the seasonal Whitman’s Samplers and conversation hearts.
Each box of cards had a theme — Disney characters, Garfield, the Berenstain Bears — but were otherwise generic, bearing anodyne tidings of holiday cheer. You’d scrawl your signature on each of the 25 cards, stuff them into their flimsy red envelopes and address them, painstakingly, to each member of your class.
The process might have felt impersonal to an adult, but as a child, receiving dozens of little envelopes that were addressed to me, in the individual penmanship of each of my classmates, felt heavenly. It was exciting to open each one and see which cartoon character hid inside, to be lavished with so much attention. It was an early exercise in seeing and being seen.
Love was, in this classroom scenario, democratic, if dutiful. Over time, of course, we become more selective in how we confer our affection. Eventually, Valentine’s Day, should we choose to participate, becomes a day for honoring one sweetheart, for celebrating a single relationship. One card, one box of chocolates, one dinner reservation.
Efforts have been made to enlarge the circle of those we honor on Valentine’s Day; in 2010 the television comedy “Parks and Recreation” introduced us to “Galentine’s Day,” when women celebrate their female friends. It seems to have achieved some staying power, both for its inclusivity and for its profit-generating potential. But at its heart, under the layers of commercialism and cliché, Valentine’s Day’s core proposition is still one of selectivity (of varying degrees), of special someones and Steady Freddies.
The modern phenomenon of Valentine’s Day gets weirder the closer you look at it: We have this one day when we focus on love, when it’s acceptable — nay, expected — that we communicate tender feelings, preferably in the form of a card, in which those feelings have been inscribed. We engage in a more or less choreographed, calendar-delimited expression of romance and emotion. Then it’s back to worldly cares and business as usual on February 15.
I’m exaggerating, of course — we’re not wholly cut off from our feelings 364 days out of the year. But we’re not necessarily focused on deliberate expressions of affection either, whether toward our partners, our children, our friends. It’s not because we’re heartless, but because we’re busy. A holiday reminds us to explicitly tell those we care about that we care, but a calendar alert that you set for a random Thursday in April would do just as well.
I always come back to those classroom valentines. They were wonderful because they were egalitarian, but also because they were actual artifacts of affection, however mass produced, bearing my name and the sender’s. They were mail, something that was exotic and exciting to receive as a child, that’s become even more exotic and exciting to receive in our paperless present. Sending a “thinking about you” text to a friend is a lovely gesture. Mailing a postcard, or a longer note, a more explicit demonstration of fondness, feels a bit magical. And even more so if you don’t wait for a birthday or holiday to do it.
THE WEEK IN CULTURE
🎸 “What Now” (Out Now): Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, wrote and recorded the songs on her second solo album in the wake of both a divorce and the pandemic, and the result, as David Peisner described it in his profile of the musician, is “filled with wailing soul, jittery funk and buzzing grooves born of frustration, pain, love and intense questioning.” It all came together during a period when she, like many of us, was forced to stop much of what she had been doing, but the resulting music showcases her undiminished vocal power.
😹 “Have It All” (Tuesday): It’s not even mid-February, but it feels safe to say that Taylor Tomlinson — whom our comedy critic Jason Zinoman calls “one of the most acclaimed, in-demand superstars in comedy, the rare young stand-up with mass appeal in the current fragmented landscape” — is having a standout year. Last month she made her debut as the host of “After Midnight” on CBS, filling James Corden’s former late-night spot. On Tuesday, her third Netflix comedy special, “Have It All,” starts streaming, just in case you need a way to ignore the encroachment of Valentine’s Day.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK
Is it even legal to have a Super Bowl party without a bowl of guacamole on the coffee table? You can’t do better than the chef Josefina Howard’s version, as adapted by Florence Fabricant. Served at the original Rosa Mexicano restaurant in Manhattan, it couldn’t be simpler, a mix of ripe avocados seasoned with onion, chile, cilantro and a little tomato for color and a juicy bite. The recipe as written feeds only two (or even one very ardent guacamole lover), but it’s easy to scale up for a crowd. And be sure to make a lot. Whether your team wins or loses, you’ll need plenty of guac on hand to see you through.
The hunt: A young family took their Chicago budget to Madison, Wis. Which house did they choose? Play our game.
Eating disorders: Boys and men suffer from them, too. Two experts explain what to look for.
Stay strong: Doctors are looking for ways to counteract the muscle loss that can happen when using weight-loss drugs like Ozempic.
Free skate: People around the U.S. are building private ice skating rinks in their backyards, sometimes using as little as a garden hose and lots of patience.
ADVICE FROM WIRECUTTER
For Valentine’s Day procrastinators
It’s not too late to hit a Valentine’s Day home run, whether you’re seeking the perfect present for a cherished friend or a low-key surprise for a new crush. Wirecutter’s experts gathered up the best last-minute gifts, none of which make it seem like you dipped into the drugstore for a day-of panic buy. I can’t stop talking about the long-stem Lego roses beloved by our experts, which have pretty petals and little thorns and would delight almost everyone I know. Of course, if you would rather go the real flowers route, more than a few of our favorite flower delivery services specialize in day-of and last-minute orders. — Hannah Morrill
GAME OF THE WEEK
UConn vs. South Carolina, women’s college basketball: This isn’t the biggest sporting event of the weekend, but it could be the best. These two teams topped The Athletic’s power rankings at the start of the season, and South Carolina has remained at No. 1. “It is overwhelmingly clear South Carolina is the best team in the country,” Sabreena Merchant wrote this week. Keep a particular eye on MiLaysia Fulwiley, a freshman who grew up minutes from South Carolina’s campus and whose moves have earned praise from Magic Johnson. Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.