The best thing I read on Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day, Slate reprinted, “Watching the Couples Go By,” a short essay by the late Herbert Stein. He died in 1999. The piece originally ran in 1997. The Kennedy Center makes for a sublime guest star. The subtitle of the article, which captures the point more than any individual line, is “Why is this basic woman so valuable to this basic man whose arm she holds?”

Stein was a conservative economist and Slate’s original Dear Prudence advice columnist, which today would make him a #slatepitch but in the ’90s just made him an interesting person. He was also the father of Ben Stein. This morning I’ve found myself digging through his Slate archive.

Two more of his articles seemed good for Valentine’s Day. Whether you spent it with someone or not, the truths are both work and comfort.

On the association of songs with emotions:

“I don’t know which caused which. I am not Freud. But I think the answer is some of each. (That seems to be my answer to most questions.) The man recalled the song because he was happy and he was happy because he recalled the song. Many factors led to his being happy in the rain. One of them was the song. He might have been happy without it. But retrieving that song from his memory bank helped to articulate his happiness, intensify it and prolong it.”

On the electronic age and remembering:

“The contents of the communication don’t matter. It can be a postcard saying, ‘I am in Mexico. It is hot here.’ It can be a phone call asking, ‘How are you?’ It can be an e-mail message forwarding one of those slightly funny jokes that circulate around the Internet. What counts is the connection — the feeling of not being forgotten. Even if the message comes from someone you are sure has not forgotten you — one of your children, for example — it is a comfort to be reminded. It is also a comfort if the message comes from a total stranger, as long as the message is for you specifically and personally and not for a name on a mailing list.”

Favorite pieces that surfaced this Valentine’s

One piece is mostly photos. One is from a child. All of them are good.

1. “Love in Three Photos: the 20 Winning Stories,” subtitled “Sweet and heartbreaking photo haikus from Slate readers.” A project from former colleague Heather, continuing to do amazing things for Slate’s visual storytelling, more affecting than anything else I read this week.

2. “Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” Paulo Coelho excerpts himself for us. It’s cool for a great novelist to blog. It’s especially cool to do so three times a week and take time to wish happy Valentine’s.

3. “Nothing good gets away.” Steinbeck gives love advice to his son.

4. “Love goes slow. Love is ridiculous. Love is fast like a pony with a wizard costume on and a green mustache.” A kid from 826 Chicago.

5. I mentioned this song in my year-end link round-up, but Redbird’s cover of Tom Waits’ Hold On was running through my heart and just behind my lips all through the first half of Tuesday. It’s a song about love but also, as the title explains, about waiting for love: waiting for love to be good, waiting for love to work and just waiting for it at all. It’s close to a perfect song for anyone-everyone on Valentine’s Day.

“You build it up, you wreck it down / And then you burn your mansion to the ground / Sometimes there’s nothing left to keep you here / But when you’re falling behind in this / Big blue world / Oh you got to / Hold on…”

(And, sure, in the 2000 Grammy competition for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, it’s too bad the Waits original of this song lost to Lenny Kravitz’s American Woman. But this song, I imagine, can live and wait.)

My neon Valentine

Yesterday I received one of the coolest Valentines I’ve ever been lucky enough to get. Neon! Sewing! Layers! Cut-outs! Stickers! Accessories! And… you can see it here. Somehow only halfway done, this week has already proven dizzying — senior citizens collapsing at the Metro (tale for another time), caring for giant eggs (the same, a hopefully amusing story), too much going on at work (self-explanatory, yes?) — so it was awfully nice to receive something that made me stop to take it all in. I could never create something like it. It’s so intriguing — all neon to me.

A realization a week or so ago

After you take photos, you move them to your system’s Pictures folder. After you crop and post the photos, you move the originals to archives. In these final folders, the used photos sit. You never see them again.

Photos you don’t post, they wait in your Pictures folder. You look back at them now and then. You try and find a reason to use them. You find reasons sometimes. Other times you wonder why you took them at all.

For more than two years now, one particular set has sat alone in your Pictures folder. You went to a reception at a conference in late October 2010, and you took a half-dozen pictures. Most turned out blurry. One colleague spoke at the event. He turned out blurry. Did he gesticulate a bunch? But a less-gesticular acquaintance who moderated the event also turned out blurry. When you turned around and took a picture of the rest of the room, no one was blurry. But everyone looked a bit off.

But in the back of this photo, this sad photo for which you’ve tried so often to come up with a reason to post, there is a woman at center in a white-trimmed lady blazer. She’s back where you see a few staffers and friends of the organization that is throwing this reception. When you blow up the photo to full size, you see someone is behind her still.

You make out only a tiny bit of this person. But looking closely, you can tell the person behind Lazy Blazer is a woman. The woman has flowing red hair, brighter under the light. You realize who she is. You meet her two years later, somehow, and you have dinner plans with her tonight.

‘All love letters are / Ridiculous’

I don’t hate Valentine’s Day. I’m not in position to truly celebrate it this year, and people not in that position often hate the holiday. But I don’t hate it. I can’t. Even when most conflicted, hating today is impossible. I don’t know about you, but let’s celebrate both sides of this crazy coin.

(Yeah, it’s kind of amazing weather in D.C. today too.)

For instance…

McSweeney’s new “Donald Rumsfeld: Love Doctor“? Made my hour for an hour last week. First line: “In love there are things you know, and things you don’t know, and things you don’t know you don’t know.”

The New York Times writes a Vows piece about the marriage of the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s ice king (age 80) and snow queen (age 75). The piece is fantastic, and it makes up for all the infidelity-dismissing Vows has done. My favorite quote comes from the bride. She describes how life was normal until she realized her feelings. But the first half of her quote is such a beautiful setup: “You’re looking out of the same eyes as you did at 30, and it’s still the same world, with trees and snow.”

Nerve ranks every Motown song ever to hit No. 1 with the word “love” in the title, and the order is odd but enjoyable. Through a few clicks, it also leads me to David Ruffin’s sublime, heartbreaking Statue of a Fool.

Then there’s the Slate round-up that reminded me of how I felt about the day. The story collected favorite love poems from the site’s staff. Below were ones I liked most from the bunch (go and choose yours):

Everything Good between Men and Women.” C.D. Wright’s opening lines: “has been written in mud and butter / and barbecue sauce…”

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond.” e.e. cummings on us opening each other’s souls (or minds or bodies) “petal by petal.”

Topography.” Sharon Olds: “my Kansas burning against your Kansas your Kansas burning against my Kansas” and all of it very un-Kansas.

Untitled, I think, by Fernando Pessoa. 1st stanza: “All love letters are / Ridiculous. / They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t / Ridiculous.”

What I’m probably going to read tonight: another couple stories from the My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead love and anti-love anthology, which I’m slowly… working my way through. Have some fun singing anyway, you know? No position’s too perfect, and you can’t go wrong singing. It’s a kind of New Year. Auld Lang Syne wishes with Ryan/Alejandro:

Without mentioning a certain holiday*, three things I like

1. The fact this crazy ad for roses exists, runs in our paper and causes two people to have a debate like this one. Link. (I vote neighbor.)

2. 2010’s Valentines for Journalists. 2009’s Valentines for Journalists. (My favorite: “I love you like a reporter loves cake.” I love you, cake.)

3. The startling end of Robert Pinsky’s “crazy love” poetry round-up.

“Her Triumph”
William Butler Yeats

I did the dragon’s will until you came
Because I had fancied love a casual
Improvisation, or a settled game
That followed if I let the kerchief fall:
Those deeds were best that gave the minute wings
And heavenly music if they gave it wit;
And then you stood among the dragon”‘rings.
I mocked, being crazy, but you mastered it
And broke the chain and set my ankles free,
Saint George or else a pagan Perseus;
And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.

*Have yet to decide whether to admit its existence this year or not.

Valentine’s Day leftovers

Stuff I liked reading and hearing yesterday amid other stuff cuz I’m a sucker: WXRT/Last.fm stream of Modest Mouse’s Dashboard (“Well we scheme and we scheme but we always blow it / We’ve yet to crash, but we still might as well enjoy it / Standing at a light switch to each east and west horizon / Every dawn when you’re surprising, and the evening was consoling / Saying, see it wasn’t quite as bad as”), 1980 Cap Centre (love it!) video of Springsteen’s Crush on You (“My feets were flyin’ down the street just the other night / When a Hong Kong special pulled up at the light / What was inside, man, was just c’est magnifique / I wanted to hold the bumper and let her drag me down the street”), Wolfgang’s Vault full audio of a joyously smashed Faces concert from ’73 (if you only have time to listen to one song, make it the I Wish It Would Rain cover), the heart in Times Square, hundreds of reader entries and comments for “Your Love in Six Words” in the Post (“Submit to passion, never go back”), the photo for next year’s Post Magazine Valentine’s Fiction contest, TMN’s frat rewrite of “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Pasha Malla’s TMN “Does He Love You?” follow-up to 2005’s “Does She Love You,” and Pitchfork’s lede on Ryan Adams’ new iTunes EP. The comp is utterly unbuyable in its pairing of six previously released songs necessary to get one additional new song (with kudos only to the Lost Highway compiler for finding that many happy Ryan songs about relationships), but you want love? I love Dombal’s lede.

Imagine you have a friend who writes a blog all about cream puffs. People call him/her Puffy at the bar and then you have to explain to the uninitiated how the nickname isn’t based on Sean Combs. And then that friend has a terrible day when none of his/her cream puffs come out right — they’re not fluffy enough, they’re burnt, and so on. And this imaginary friend decides to quit his/her blog at the end of this trying day. But he/she still loves cream puffs … and starts blogging again soon after the breakdown.

This friend is exactly like Ryan Adams, except without the delicious pastries.

The unreconstructed romantic

v-split

This blog has never said much about Valentine’s Day. Time to change.

Thursday evening, I listened to newly married couples talk about their newly married-ness for two hours, and the wine bottle got stuck early at the other end of the table. The cheese plate was no help. A day and a half before Valentine’s, I needed the red. The couples delighted and fit, brought in to talk about exactly what they were talking about, so I buried myself taking notes. Any question wouldn’t have come out right.

The scribbles did all right the next morning, helping as we searched for a narrative. The story was holding together better than I was. When it came time for someone to explain the couples to the group, I turned the role down flat. Cardinal sin, I knew it. No was hardly an answer. If I hadn’t been me, I would’ve been up in my face on a denial. But I liked the people whose story we needed to tell and what they represented. And while we had their story, I knew I didn’t. The words were all there, but the conjunctions were uncoordinated, damp or martially blanked.

With brainstorming next, things improved. “How might we help people reflect on their relationships?” was the question, and I liked the verb. Along with an idea to give everyone anywhere a mirror, another to do interviews for playback like Gladwell’s thin-slicing, a third to ask for an adjective each like a Sun-Times weather forecast, something involving a pair’s shared jetpack, and a lost minute where I couldn’t find words for your reflection in a penny fountain, a house of mirrors ran to mind. Unexpected images were the life we tried to keep in the funhouse.

A friend liked the idea, and we built the house metaphor into a concept forcing the conversations but also welcoming them. What if your lover lost vision? What if the person you saw each morning and night got an awful haircut? What if the one you liked had scissors for hands? What if somebody lost a job? What if there was a kidnap? As we presented, raising the photos, talking and taking questions, the crowd seemed to engage with the possibilities. The kidnap prompt got shock, we heard later, and the overarching idea left one listener near smiling tears.

I was surprised too. I was happy a random idea had fit the challenge, for sure. But the power of getting to opening words, even as we have to get there over and over again in our lives, is always so unexpected.

I don’t know what love looks like anymore, and I’m not going to know anytime soon. I constructed the universe where love used to live. Then the stars blew up one by one and the universe collapsed. Now I know love is constructing me, not the other way around. With more practical terms, I have to ask and answer, to put on the duct tape and rip it off.

Wait, so, are they talking about God or …

Dancing Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky offers a mini-compilation of love poetry to Slate for Valentine’s Day. My favorite is halfway down the page, the Sappho by way of William Carlos Williams.

Related past entries:
-March 10, 2004: Pinsky and my chainsaw
-Oct. 19, 2003: Pinsky on baseball
-March 16, 2003: Pinsky on war
-Nov. 30, 2002: Pinsky on 9/11

Happy Valentine’s Day

He who wishes to save himself from Love’s surprise attacks must keep his eyes prisoners. If they escape, they will scream in the ears of his heart while it sleeps — so loudly that they will awaken it — shouting that they have just seen some peerless pleasure.

–The world’s oldest known Valentine, sent in 1415 by the then-imprisoned Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife.