Then, one February, everything changed. It was like this: I was sitting around with my boyfriend, Frank, drinking a beer, when he asked what I wanted to do for Valentine's Day. I suggested the usual nothing, wondering if he had forgotten what a lovely time we had had the previous year doing nothing. Frank nodded. Then he mentioned that he was thinking of buying me a gift—if not for Valentine's Day, exactly, then just because— and suggested that maybe I consider doing the same. I sneered. This was the moment I looked forward to every time I sat through a De Beers ad, the moment for self-righteous speechifying. "Why would we want to do that?" I asked, gearing up to lower the boom. His answer totally flicked on the cartoon lightbulb over my head: "Well, because I thought it would be a nice thing to do."
"A nice thing to do." How can you argue against doing nice things for a person you like? You really can't. Feeling like the Grinch during the heart-grows-three-sizes scene, I realized that perhaps it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that couples might give each other presents not because of capitalist brainwashing, but because they like to be generous with their partners. That, just maybe, what you do for each other isn't as important as why and how you do it.
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Frank and I agreed then to buy each other something special and, you know, meaningful. A thing that the other person would really want to have. Which, it turns out, is an odd combination of more and less sappy than just grabbing an off-the-shelf plush from Snuggles Unlimited. More sappy because you have to put a lot of thought into delighting someone you love, and less sappy because you're not doing anything that would make my sister say "Awww." So when Frank gave me the nose ring he had picked out, and I gave him a signed comic book, it did feel like we were doing something nice for each other, and with very little associated saccharin.
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It's possible to find a happy medium between sticky sweet and bitterly repressed. Here's an example involving people other than me: A few years back, my friends Josh and Karen announced that they had decided to get married. My initial reaction was to be highly skeptical about the whole thing. Not because of the commitment—they'd been living together for years and were really good for each other. No, I was bothered by the inherent lameness of having a wedding.