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Some musings from a Valentine’s Day grinch

I hate Valentine’s Day.

Along with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I consider Valentine’s Day a conspiracy by jewelers, candymakers, florists and card companies to force the guilt-ridden into mistaking consumerism for emotional depth. I also understand that I am in the minority on this.

At the same time, I love sappy songs, romantic movies, love poems, my children and my wife of 39 years. I was thrilled when Jim and Pam finally got together in “The Office.” I was hoping Sandra Bullock would choose the right brother in “While You Were Sleeping.” I want Mimi to survive in “La Bohème” and for Othello to spare Desdemona.

Adolfo Hohenstein created this poster for one of Giacomo Puccini’s most popular heartbreaking operas about doomed love, “La Bohème.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Adolfo Hohenstein created this poster for one of Giacomo Puccini’s most popular heartbreaking operas about doomed love, “La Bohème.” (Wikimedia Commons)

I love to hear Alison Krauss sing “When You Say Nothing at All” and Sinatra’s “One for My Baby and One More for the Road.” Johnny Cash sings a version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” that captures exactly what it’s like to be more in love than ever as you near the end of the line.

Loving someone is hard, so hard that to love someone well you must make a decision every single day to love. To love is to act.

There is a sweet story by Kurt Vonnegut that makes that point literally. It is called “Who Am I This Time?” Two awkward and shy people share a passion for acting in their community theater. They can communicate with each other only by performing scenes together. They proclaim their love by playing Romeo and Juliet. Harry proposes to Helene by performing a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

I think the greatest love story written in my lifetime must be “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” On the surface, it is a story of two monstrous people spending a drunken night ripping each other to shreds. Then, in a quiet eddy in the tumult of the play, Martha says this about her husband: “George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me, whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy…. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: Yes, this will do.” You bring yourself to a love affair, Martha says, and that can be an awful burden.

For love betrayed, you can’t do better than “Madama Butterfly,” Puccini’s opera about Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese teenager who falls in love with an American naval officer. He impregnates her, leaves for home, then returns with a new wife to claim his child. Expect to cry when Cio-Cio-San sings “Un bel di vedremo” about the expected return of her lover: “One good day, we will see/Arising a strand of smoke/Over the far horizon on the sea/And then the ship appears. …/Do you see it? He is coming!”

For tragedy, there is “Brokeback Mountain,” Annie Proulx’s story of two cowboys who spend a lifetime hiding their love.

I think love makes most of us tongue-tied. The best declaration of love I can manage always sounds trite. Oh, for a muse of fire! as Shakespeare said.

After more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s sonnets continue to express love the way I wish I could. One of my favorites is No. 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments. Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds,/Or bends with the remover to remove:/O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,/That looks on tempests and is never shaken. …”

Valentine’s Day is for sweethearts, but there are other kinds of love and great writers to speak of them. John Donne, the English cleric, wrote 19 mediations on humanity and God known as the Holy Sonnets. No. 17 suggests that the poet learned how to love God by experiencing the love of his late wife: “Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt/To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,/And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,/Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.”

Dylan Thomas wrote this for his dying father: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And Anne Sexton wrote this for her daughter: “Oh, little girl,/my stringbean,/how do you grow?/You grow this way./You are too many to eat.”

You have probably heard this one at half of the weddings you’ve ever attended: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

It is from St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, and I know of no better explanation of what it is to love.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.