Norfolk, located on the east coast of England, was long considered England’s “second city,” after London, right up to the Industrial Revolution. In the Victorian era, Valentine’s Day held tremendous significance. On this day, Norfolkian? Norfolkite? Norfolker? lovers exchanged gifts with one another.
Like a benevolent game of Ding Dong Ditch, there’d be a knock on your door, you’d open it, no one would be there, you’d look down, and there’d be a gift on your doorstep, said to have been left by Jack Valentine. And because even without a toy aisle, Victorian children were greedy little piles of stress-inducement, parents would leave them gifts as well.
This is my second favorite Ding Dong Ditch story ever, the first being:
I once had an anthropology professor claim there’s a converse relationship between human cultural variation and physical proximity. In other words, if you have two groups of people 10 miles apart, there’s more anthropological diversity between those two groups than between them and groups from halfway around the world. Like everything that makes sense, that doesn’t seem to make sense, until it does. In Norfolk County, some families believe that Jack Valentine became Old Father Valentine. Others say he became she: Old Mother Valentine.
And because light without the benefit of dark as contrast blinds rather than illumes, there is a third belief, in someone called Snatch Valentine (if no porn star’s trademarked that name yet, just give it time). Snatch Valentine leaves a gift with a string attached, and just like a political party teasing its core during primary season, Snatch yanks it away whenever the child reaches for it. Children are warned not to chase after the gift, that if they do, something horrible will happen to them—which, I mean, come on. His name’s Snatch Valentine. As names go, it may as well be a skull & crossbones.
There is an elegance to this practice, and an irony. The children of Norfolk’s Valentine’s Day experience feels closer to the reality of romantic relationships than anything Old Father or Old Mother Valentine are teaching the adults.
Grant Morrison has written about how pre-verbal children can see things the rest of us can’t, because their understanding of what is possible hasn’t been constricted by the limits of language. We write-off fabulous tales and characters that very young children tell us about; we say it’s an imaginary friend, or it’s just their imagination, or whatnot. But anyone who has spent anytime listening to children knows they have an access point to certain truths that many of us have forgotten as we’ve aged.
Over the holidays I was helping my niece put the finishing touches on a gingerbread house she’d built. I saw my niece almost every day for the first three years of her life; now that I’ve moved, I tend to go months at a time without seeing her. In kid years, going months at a time without seeing them is like not seeing an adult for decades. They change so much in that time, and they’re simultaneously strikingly different than what you recall and more themselves than ever.
In that spirit, and because I’m snowed in and tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day and I’m avoiding any real work today, I give you a list, in no particular order, of what I’ve learned in nearly 20 years of romantic relationships, 20 years where I’ve grown strikingly different and also more myself than ever.
Here we go!
I learned to love shrimp. And sushi. Those aren’t euphemisms, ya perv. I really did learn to love shrimp and sushi.
I learned you can’t end up with your first love, because no matter how bright and beautiful that first love is, just like light without dark, without contrast, you can’t see anything outside of it.
I learned to turn the lid of any pitcher I put in the fridge 90 degrees, so there won’t be any accidental spills. The relationship I picked this habit up from was an endless hiccup of spills and clean-ups. Symbolism, thy name is Duh.
I learned you cannot love someone who doesn’t love themself. No matter how hard you try, you can’t fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
I learned to never take anyone at their word. Ever. Nobody says what they mean. By which I mean, at best, nobody means “just” what they say, and at worst, nobody says what they mean. Subtext surrounds us. It penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. Unfortunately, it doesn’t let you levitate or come with a light saber.
I learned to make sure my pant legs fell over the tongues of my shoes and never fell tucked behind them.
I learned when somebody says they’re incapable of love, believe them. It’s not a dare. It’s not a challenge. It’s a red flag that this isn’t someone you should be in a relationship with.
I learned you should never spend 10 minutes badmouthing Vanessa Carlton when you don’t know any of her work besides that one song everybody knows…especially if the girl you’re badmouthing her to turns out to be a huge Vanessa Carlton fan.
I learned the right girl at the wrong time will always be the right girl. And it will always be the wrong time. And time trumps rightness every time.
I learned that every man should have one night with one woman that makes him smile all over whenever he remembers it.
Thank you for that one night.
I learned that as far as girlfriend candidates go, borderline alcoholics need not apply.
I learned any girl who’s dating a guy who hates you and who hangs out with you at night, knowing how much her boyfriend hates that, is not a girl to aim for. She’s someone else’s sand. Let him sink while she erodes.
I learned that someone can be the most attractive, intelligent, clever, stylish, desirable person you’ve ever met in your life and also be the worst human being you will ever know.
I learned if she’s a compulsive liar, how matter how mystical the bond you seem to share is, she is lying to you. Siempre. Book it.
I learned that some women don’t grasp that no means no. Just because it’s a man saying no doesn’t mean it means yes. No means no.
I learned if you’re not interested in a girl and she chases after you, that won’t make you interested. It will make you resent the chase, and eventually, the chaser.
I learned great sex minus an emotional connection works great when having a one-night stand. But if you’re seeing someone repeatedly, and the sex is objectively great, but there’s no emotional spark, then the sex becomes pantomime. And pantomimed sex is just pointless, X-rated dry-humping. Only damper.
I learned once the love is gone, you really notice how dirty/messy a LOT of girls are.
I learned sometimes two people are just never meant to happen. No matter how much they want it, no matter all the ways it makes sense, if it ain’t meant to be, it ain’t being.
I learned a relationship can’t work when the people involved are more invested in the playtime of a relationship than in working with one another on it.
I learned when you make sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice for someone, and they’re effusively grateful, yet when you ask them to sacrifice they refuse you, or ignore you, or lie to you (and yes, Virginia, lies of omission are still lies), then they weren’t grateful in the first place. Greed and gratitude are both receptive gestures. They look similar. But that’s all they have in common. Like Goofus and Gallant.
What has life & love taught you? Please share! We’re all bipeds here.