The semi-trailer has disgorged its load in the parking lot:
- Under a red and white canopy, metal racks overflow with white plush teddy bears sporting red ribbon neckties.
- Off-kilter hanging baskets threaten to tip heart-embroidered hand towels onto the asphalt.
- Dozens of sets-of-a-dozen roses sit with their feet in buckets of water under the table.
- On the table top, silk roses in cellophane wrappers stand neatly in vases next to stacks of cardboard boxes with peek-a-boo windows showcasing the chocolate roses within.
- Plastic clamshell boxes purvey rose petals and only slightly more edible treats: sugar cookies and white or chocolate cupcakes with pink, red and white icing.
- Cellophane bags tied up with curly ribbon corral assortments of red and white jelly beans.
- Heart-shaped boxes of chocolates stand upright with the aid of their own specially designed display stands.
- Strings of helium-filled balloons inscribed with necessarily short messages of love — Be Mine! — float gently in the desert breeze, bumping up against the canopy.
- Glitter-encrusted and lace-trimmed cards with red envelopes jostle messily together in what used to be tidily exclusive categories: Husband, Wife, Mother, Daughter, Banker.
OK, maybe not that last one, not for a few years, anyway.
Valentine’s Day in the American Southwest offers more scope for merchandising than it does in the Great White North: more products, for sure, and more options for sales locations. Our local grocery store parking lot is not the only place so afflicted: temporary stalls have sprung up at many undeveloped intersections on the edges of the various towns that make up this metropolis, and at gas stations almost everywhere. In-your-face product placement and saturation TV and print advertising make it clear: at this time of year, the rules of the game of Love dictate staged engagements, expensive dinners for two, and sparkly, floral, edible, or tacky gifts.
As someone who came to the appreciation of many games a little late in life — hockey and golf among them — I take a dispassionate interest in the concept of the ‘rules of the game’ and its friend, the concept of ‘fair play’. What constitutes fair play? The specifics vary by sport, of course, but the general idea is that play must follow the established rules of that game. These rules may seem arbitrary but they’re clear, not to mention inflexible. A bunt in baseball? Always OK. Grounding your golf club in a hazard? Always not.
Where it gets interesting is in what’s fair with respect to deception. In this week after the Super Bowl we can hardly miss how essential the ‘fake’ is to football. The pretended hand-off and the faked set-up for a punt are both perfectly valid plays. Hockey has some deception built into it too: players fake passes and try to deke out defencemen and goalies. Yet where football sanctions deception at the planning level, and hockey includes it as a valid tactic at the execution level, some sports have no tolerance for deception: in baseball, for example, even a simple balk is illegal. (Some sports, poor dears, have no scope for deceit: in curling, Huffin’ and Puffin’ can’t fake their degree of effort in sweeping a rock to make an opposing team think the ice is heavier than it is; in golf, no one tries to mislead their competitor by hitting a putt in any other way than how they really see the break.)
The rules of the game also define what’s required to handle the inevitable fouls. In some sports, players are expected to call their own infractions: curlers turn themselves in for touching a rock; golfers assess the requisite penalty after a double hit. Contact sports seem to drive a different standard: Get away with whatever you can. Hockey players judged to have whacked someone excessively are expected to protest their innocence on their way to the penalty box: What, me? I never/hardly touched him! And in soccer, the supposed whackees fall on the field in Oscar-worthy performances, only to pop up again, ready and raring to go, after the opposing team is penalized.
So what about Love? Is the fake a legitimate part of the game? In this ultimate contact sport, are we expected to call our own fouls, or lie doggo and hope not to get caught? There’s an old saying (150 or 400 years old, depending on whether the Smedley or Lyly attribution is correct) that seems to apply here: All is fair in love and war.
Now, War as a ‘whatever goes’ sort of activity makes intuitive sense. ‘Surprise’ is a principle of warfare, and no one seriously complains about the unfairness of the ambush, the feint or the diversion. It is accepted that part of the challenge is to detect the enemy’s ruse and counter it, while deploying your own with greater skill. But whence the notion that Love is anything at all like War?
This aphorism is not about offering lovers a defence against stalking charges, an excuse for assault, or a free pass for abandoning one set of family responsibilities to take up another. It’s not even about the more everyday fouls we might any of us commit in the game of Love: indifference, under-appreciation, impatience. Indeed, it is not talking about the relationship between two lovers at all. Instead, it is referring to the pursuit of one person by two or more others: a figurative fight for the affections of the pursued. And in this sense, success in the game of Love can mean the survival of one’s genes — the biological ‘war’ all living creatures wage.
Yet if our impulses have their origins in our biology, their ends need not be so constrained. It is the wonder of the human condition that we can not only see, but also sometimes reach, beyond our own interests. We can aspire to an ideal of Love laid out in this New International Version of a letter from a fellow named Paul to some folks he knew in Corinth:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking.
It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
This Valentine’s Day, retailers playing another game altogether will again try to persuade us that the game of Love requires us to buy what they’re selling. Whether we get sucked up into the commercial vortex of the day or not, in the interests of fair play perhaps we can take a few moments to reacquaint ourselves with the true rules of the game of Love.