Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My frugal Valentine

Valentine's Day is the most problematic of all holidays. If you're single, obviously, it feels like a slap in the face to be surrounded everywhere you go by red hearts and roses and teddy bears, a massive consumer binge in celebration of romantic love that you have no part in. But at least you know how to react to it. You can just grumble at how stupid it all is, and then do your best to dismiss it from your mind. That may mean going out and partying with your single friends, or staying in and vegging in front of the TV, but either way, you get to stay above the V-day fray.

Being part of a couple, however, doesn't necessarily mean that you hate all the rigamarole surrounding Valentine's Day any less. It just means that it's harder for you to ignore it. What do you do if you're happily partnered, but you consider red hearts and roses and teddy bears to be corny, trite, or just plain sickening? If you decide to skip the whole thing, your partner may feel ignored and hurt, but it's almost worse to give a mass-market present that you just grabbed off the shelf; unless your partner actually likes red hearts and roses and teddy bears, giving any of these things makes it seem like you were just trying to meet an obligation, rather than actually looking for a way to please your sweetheart. So, as this XKCD cartoon shows, you end up trying desperately to come up with something clever and original, in order to avoid being either "a consumer tool or an inconsiderate jerk."

This is the main reason that, in the 14 years we've been together—marriage, engagement, and long-distance courtship—Brian and I have never really come up with a satisfying way to celebrate Valentine's Day. Sure, we always go to the special Valentine's Day show at the Minstrel concert series, in which individual Folk Project members take turns doing songs or other pieces about love, but that's more a way of supporting the Folk Project than celebrating each other—and since it's always on a Friday night, it usually doesn't fall on Valentine's Day anyway. Over the years, I've offered Brian various little things for Valentine's Day, from poems to baked goods, but he's never seemed very enthusiastic about any of them, or had any ideas about how to reciprocate. So after yet another uneventful Valentine's Day last year, I finally got fed up and said that this year, I wanted to do something to celebrate.

Being an ecofrugal couple, however, we couldn't very well celebrate with any of the conventional gifts that the stores have been pushing since early January. Roses in February, in addition to being ludicrously expensive, are sure to have been either grown in an extravagantly heated greenhouse or shipped up from the southern hemisphere, either of which requires loads of carbon-emitting fossil fuel; according to Scientific American, the 100 million roses given for Valentine's Day each year in the United States are responsible for over 9,000 metric tons of CO2. The heart-shaped boxes of chocolates lining store shelves, though tasty, are mostly neither organic nor Fair Trade—and, as we learned recently, may well be contaminated with dangerous levels of cadmium or lead. And the priciest Valentine goodie of all, jewelry, comes with a host of environmental problems, from the catastrophic pollution caused by gold mining to the habitat destruction of gemstone mines.

Fortunately for me, I had a good idea for a gift fall more or less into my lap. Brian and I had just finished reading the paperback of Gunmetal Magic, an adventure in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, and it seemed to me that there must have been some piece of the storyline that we'd missed at some point. So I checked the website and found not one but two novellas in the series, both of them love stories, and both of them available as Kindle books for only three bucks. (Kindle books aren't included in my current boycott of Amazon.com, because they aren't shipped through Amazon's prison-camp warehouses—though if they don't clean up their act soon, I might decide to cut off this source of revenue to Amazon as well.) So I ordered one of them for him as a gift, which means that an e-mail gets sent to him with a claim code to download the book. Then, to make it more interesting, I set up a little treasure hunt to lead him to his gift. The first clue was waiting for him on the breakfast table in the morning:

Oh, I wonder, wonder who, who wrote the book of love?
That planted the idea of a book, which led him to our bookshelves. Fortunately, he didn't have to hunt through our whole collection to figure out which was was "the book of love," because my little Shakespeare doll was sitting between two bookends holding clue #2:

He's working late 'most every night, he doesn't phone, he doesn't write
This clue directed him to the office, where he eventually figured out that the book he was looking for was his homemade book tablet case. Inside that, he found his third clue:

My baby, she wrote me a letter
That told him to check his e-mail, where he found his Kindle book waiting for him with the message, "Come on baby, light my fire! Happy Valentine's Day!" (I think the main reason I went ahead and bought the book for Kindle rather than trying the Nook app was to have a chance to use that line.) Of course, the whole process of downloading the book turned out to be another puzzle in itself (they really could make it simpler), but we eventually got our book, and I read the whole thing to him over the course of that day. So that was our romantic Valentine's Day activity.

Brian, for his part, got me two small presents. The first was a photo he'd taken a few years back of our cat, who has been sick lately, so a picture of her in good health was a nice memento. He just printed it out on plain paper and put it in a little frame he had tucked away in a box, so the whole gift was repurposed and cost nothing except the ink.


Then, knowing that I wouldn't be interested in traditional, environmentally destructive jewelry, he instead picked up a whimsical little pair of earrings from our local Ten Thousand Villages store. Aren't they cute? The tag calls them "a whimsical tribute to eco-friendly transport around the world," made from recycled materials by artisans in Kenya. And even though they were paid a living wage for their work, the cost to us was still under $10 on account of the store's February jewelry sale. What could be more ecofrugal than that?


And finally, to top off our romantic day, he made me chocolate pudding (with organic cocoa and sugar, of course), and we ate it on the couch while watching Mythbusters. The perfect geek date.

So if I had to give a single tip for avoiding the Valentine dilemma, here's what I'd suggest: pay no attention to what the stores are selling. Instead, think about what your sweetie really enjoys, and choose a present that you know they'll appreciate. Because a $3 gift that really shows how well you know and care about each other is way, way more romantic than a $50 gift that you could have given to anyone. Better yet, make your gift an activity that you can do together, and show your love with quality time instead of cash.

And, for all you singles out there who still think the whole thing is annoying: there's no rule that says you can't treat yourself to something special on the 14th of February, or any other day that strikes your fancy.
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