The way I proposed to my girlfriend wasn't like a scene from a movie. Though, to be honest, that's what I'd been aiming for. We were skiing north of Québec City, and during a rest on a rise framed by a sweeping vista of the Laurentide Mountains, I shuffled to one side of the trail and beckoned my girlfriend to follow me. "What?" she said. "Do you have to . . . ?" She gestured toward the woods. "Just go. I'll wait here."
"No," I said. "Just come over here." I dropped to one knee and began rooting around in the pocket of my anorak for the ring. Not the ring, but one I hoped would be an acceptable substitute - I didn't trust my taste in jewelry enough to purchase an engagement ring without its future wearer's counsel.
"What are you doing?" She shot me a puzzled look. "Why are you crouched down like that?"
In hindsight, I realize I could've salvaged the exchange as a movie moment - not a great movie, granted - had I just taken a deep breath and proposed. Instead, I said: "I'm stretching my groin."
"Well, then, why do you need me to come over there?"
In the next instant, I produced a conspicuous box too small to contain anything useful on a ski outing, and handed it to her. And then I proposed. She was surprised. There were tears. And now we're engaged.
In the months since that episode, I've replayed in my mind that pivotal phrase - "I'm stretching my groin" - vexed by the hint of hesitancy it seemed to contain. But that's just the thing: I wasn't hesitant, at least not in my heart. My groin was a bit tight, but that's not the point. No, looking back, I see that my clumsiness had more to do with trying to enact a scene with great personal meaning using someone else's script. I'm not usually like that. In fact, as a writer, I'm conditioned to avoid clichés. Was it like my girlfriend to expect the compulsory, on-bended-knee move? Looking back, I see no evidence to suggest that. What exactly had come over me?
As Valentine's Day approached, I found myself pondering how expectations play into the maneuvers men execute when called upon to initiate some romantic action. Are there risks in improvising something fresh and original? Are there risks in not improvising? And why does Hallmark get to make up a holiday, anyway?
According to my informal email survey of local men - ranging in age from their mid-thirties to early forties - a liberal dose of sincerity can carry a romantic moment no matter how cheesy the accompanying moves. "Do it from the heart and be sincere," writes Frank McHenry, who works in sales and lives in Burlington. "As for the knee, that is all about humility and respect. You had to get on your knee to be an ass-kicking knight for King Arthur. Zeus used flowers - you wanna call him soft?"
Assuming that sincerity is firing the romantic impulse, one can further hedge against disappointment by clarifying at the outset of a relationship what the range of expectations might be for "special" days. Mitch Wertlieb, host of Vermont Public Radio's "Morning Edition," communicated to his wife early in their courtship that he wished to reserve the right not to adorn their Valentine with flowers, chocolates or cheesy cards depicting cherubic babies yielding pointy weapons," as he puts it.
Her consent, he notes, unleashed "the power of the surprise romantic gesture," which in Wertlieb's case has included everything from taking his wife to a dance performance in New York City for her birthday to composing a poem on their first wedding anniversary. "The unexpected gesture - and the fact that the poem came wholly from me," he adds, "brought her to tears, because it certainly wasn't the quality of the verse. At least it wasn't a limerick."
Jon Pizzagalli and his wife came to similar terms early on. "A standard condition of my marriage is and always has been 'no Valentine's Day,'" writes the Shelburne resident and construction project manager. "Anything from the heart is on my terms (or hers, if she wants to do something nice), not Hallmark's. It carries far more weight that way, for both of us."
Still, conditioning and consumer culture being what they are, such displays do become variables in many romantic equations. As some local therapists note, special days can heighten expectations in illuminating ways. Says Manny Neuzil of Burlington-based Cornerstone Psychotherapy: "For couples who are grappling with expectations and commitment and 'How are we doing?' types of questions, these anniversaries or Valentine's Days can feel a little tenuous." But even for partners on solid footing, the romantic calendar can intensify the pressure. "Taking one day out of the year to offer a gesture or demonstration of your love - well, that's kind of big," Neuzil adds. "You want to get that right."
What it means to get it right is subjective, however. According to Diane Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist with Networks, Inc. in Burlington, whether or not a man rises to a romantic occasion may stem from "a clash of values" regarding how big days should go down. Those values could have been formed through family holiday rituals as well as in previous relationships and other social conditioning.
Gottlieb believes expectations "have to do with how people end up getting their sense of what it's like to be a man. Does it mean to be romantic and open emotionally, giving gifts and getting on your knee and saying, 'I love you and will you marry me?' and all that? If one is taught that doing all of those activities is unmanly," she adds, meeting those expectations "could end up being very awkward."
The resulting disappointment may be temporary, or it may point to more trouble ahead. "It becomes a bigger problem if there isn't a consensus about how we do Valentine's Day or an anniversary or even a marriage," Gottlieb says. Her approach is to help clients "be open and explicit about what their hopes and dreams are," she says. "What are some of the things you want to bring forth in your relationship? It's better for them to be explicit about what they want than to sit in disappointment about what they didn't get."
Neuzil agrees. "I think expectations can always be a bit of a tricky business," she says. She suggests that a "safer" way to look at occasions such as Valentine's Day might be to view them not as days to meet expectations but as opportunities to demonstrate one's feelings in unique, meaningful ways informed by real understanding. "A new vacuum cleaner might not cut it for some people," she cautions. "But a night on the town might."
It may surprise anyone who thinks college students are simply recreational sex maniacs, but Valentine romance does come to campus. Or so hopes Sarah Elizabeth Posillico, staff writer for the Vermont Cynic at the University of Vermont. "I personally have high expectations," she says, "but I try to voice them." If her boyfriend was paying attention prior to Valentine's Day, he got her roses and ice skates, and made dinner plans.
Guys who fall short of meeting expectations are not necessarily disinclined toward romantic gestures, she adds; they may just not realize what's expected. "I'm under the impression that guys are generally very simple creatures," she says, "so maybe they don't think about it."
Champlain College student Alex Tirpack hypothesizes that image-consciousness may also inhibit romantic behavior among college males. "I think that some guys stay away from the stock romance moves because they are afraid of looking cheesy, or too normal," he says. "Then there are those other guys that just don't give a shit and don't want to spend the money. In other words, the guys that don't care enough to pull the moves."
Fellow Champlainer Brendan Mess cares enough. Make no mistake, he's a tough guy - a martial-arts competitor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who claims he never loses a bout. In the romantic arts arena, Mess comes across as equally surefooted. "Personally, I think holidays are for chumps," he says, "and if you actually care about the person you are seeing, you don't need a calendar date to prod you into doing something sweet.
"When you think about how great and wonderful your significant other is and you see something that you know would make her day just a little bit better," Mess advises, "buy it, make it, do it, whatever."
While he isn't a huge fan of roses, this Valentine's Day Mess will compromise for his girlfriend. "I'll probably break into her apartment building, make some dinner, do the candle thing," he says. "Get the bath down, maybe get the rose petals. I'll settle for the rose petals."
That's way more romantic than Mess' classmate Nolan Masterson will ever be. "I do not celebrate Valentine's Day at all," he declares. "It is one of the first questions I ask when I meet a girl: Do you celebrate Valentine's Day? I absolutely despise the holiday."
The Ohio native isn't averse to demonstrating his affection for his partner, but he decries what he sees as a lack of communication at the core of so many college hook-ups. "Relationships often just 'go through the motion' and are sustained by the really good sex every day or two," Masterson says. "But . . . if many of these couples took more time to really talk to each other and know each other on a much more personal level, they would probably please their partner with almost every move."
For Masterson, popping the question would not be one of those moves - never mind dropping to one knee. "Putting someone on the spot with such a huge question, with life-lasting effects, seems really ridiculous to me," he says.
I kind of agree with him - my mountaintop proposal was a little ridiculous. I'm stretching my groin? But it was precisely the way in which it wasn't like movie proposals that made it our moment. I have a hunch this may bode well for us as a couple. I bet my clumsiness will prove a more enduring memory than a smoother move would have. It's a moment we can laugh about, at least - and surely that's a tradition worth maintaining.