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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 14, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Valentine's Day, Every Day

Valentine's Day is one of the strangest holidays. The origin is tied up with the concept of courtly love, which was always contradictory: adulterous but chaste, never-consummated but eloquently expressed love for the unattainable lady.

It may also, in its present form, be an English innovation. The earliest record of St. Valentine's Day being a festival of love comes from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Foules, and while Chaucer writes as if this tradition were old, that is a common conceit in Renaissance writing. You introduce something new as if it had an ancient past.

St. Valentine himself has a vague, contradictory, and unreliable history, but nothing about any of the traditions would tie him to romantic love.

Nor is there any apparent validity to the alternate explanation that the saint's day of 14 February led to using that day to supercede the pre-Christian holiday of Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility -- but with wolf images that certainly don't apply to any Valentine's Day traditions.

Instead, our image of naked baby archers comes from a different pagan tradition -- that of Cupid (Roman) and Eros (Greek), the son of Venus/Aphrodite, and himself a god of concupiscence.

With Cupid/Eros there was no pretense of chastity or "loving from afar" -- that was a Christian overlay.

Even as a kid in grade school, when we used to put valentines into each other's decorated paper bags, I thought it was weird that children were encouraged to take part in what was obviously an adult idea of romance.

I mean, really, what were nine-year-olds saying when they gave each other valentines?

The effect, though, was to utterly devastate the people -- mostly the less-attractive or shyer girls -- who got no valentines. What were the teachers thinking? Did we really need one more opportunity to get our feelings hurt at school?

I remember two teachers, in two different years, who actually conducted a public count of how many valentines each person received, announcing a girl winner and a boy winner. One of them even announced the ones who received the least, though the other had the decency to conceal that information.

Even now, as an adult, Valentine's Day seems to serve two purposes. One is for shy people to have an excuse to venture some kind of offering of love; the other is for people to get their feelings hurt because somebody's gift or card or idea of a date don't measure up to unspoken expectations.

And even the shy-person gambit is open for devastating hurt, since you never know when your offering of love, anonymous or not, will be taken as an intriguing possibility, or as a repulsive token from a weird stalker.

Valentine's Day complicates everything. When you're not married, asking somebody out for a date on or near Valentine's Day is likely to be taken as raising the relationship to the next level.

Which is fine if you want the relationship level to be raised. If not, not so fine.

In that case, do you decline the date? Only if you want to have a Valentine's Day breakup -- the absolute worst day, except for the birthday of the break-up-ee. Even Christmas is a better day for a break-up.

Sometimes you feel like it's better to make sure you're out of town, or have the flu, or are working to complete a project by a deadline -- any excuse to be unavailable for a date.

The trouble is that if you really wish you had a date, all your pretend busyness only makes you sadder and lonelier.

Loneliness is always hard. Why do we need holidays that call special attention to one's lack of deep connection to other people, especially when it is tied up with the failure to find a reproductive partner, so that it's linked to some of the deepest yearnings of the mammalian soul?

Plants have the right idea. Just sit there and let the breezes or the bees carry your pollen where they may, or bring you pollen as it happens to be available.

This year I'm exceptionally unprepared for Valentine's Day. I haven't made a reservation at a restaurant, because what's the point? We eat out at nice restaurants whenever we feel like it -- or whenever there isn't time to cook.

This means that nice restaurants are not particularly romantic to us.

Nor do I have a Valentine's Day gift picked out. I happened to marry a highly nonmaterialistic woman who, while she appreciates nice things, also prefers to pick them out herself. Which is fine -- I enjoy those rare occasions when she actually sees something she likes and I can buy it for her.

But me going out and picking something "nice" is a joke. She has no interest in items of high cost -- it's the artistry, not the price tag, she admires and wants to keep.

She would not be comfortable wearing something that looked expensive; she doesn't mind when other people do, but she would feel more than a little tacky wearing or displaying items whose primary function is to show off excess wealth.

It's a Christian thing: If we have the excess money to buy that kind of jewelry, then shouldn't we have given it, quietly and secretly, to the poor? That's the problem with actually reading the words of Christ in the gospels and taking them seriously -- it makes it impossible to "say it with diamonds."

In past years, I would give her chocolates. Not that we ever have a shortage of them around the house, but I know her favorites and it is fun to receive a gift that shows that you are known by the person who loves you.

But this year, she has sworn off chocolate for a season, and it would hardly show love for her if I did something to subvert her resolution.

A book would be a nice Valentine's gift -- except that we generally pick out our own books, since the investment of time in reading is a matter of personal taste. Also, we regularly go to Barnes & Noble -- our idea of a hot date -- and pick our own.

I find a book for her once every three years or so; she, for me, once every ten, only because I'm a more incessant book buyer, so that the chance of finding a book that I would like, which I haven't already bought, is close to zero.

What is left, then, for Valentine's Day for old married lovers like my wife and me?

My personal plan is to go out to someplace informal if she wants to (we eat early enough that we can almost always get a table, even on Valentine's Day) or eat at home if she prefers that.

Then we'll either watch something -- the new season of Downton Abbey? An old favorite movie? -- or play Ticket to Ride till she needs to prepare the lesson she'll teach to the high school students in the religion class that meets at our house every morning at 6:15.

If that sounds boring and unromantic to you, just keep this in mind: The romance of old lovers who have been married since 1977 and dating since 1973, and who have raised children together, is nothing like the romance of strangers trying to decide whether to become something more.

We already know so much about each other that "mystery" is no longer tantalizing -- the areas of life where we don't yet "get" each other are merely frustrating or annoying, not enticing or fascinating.

Thirty-six years of marriage means, not romance, but endless forgiveness, forbearance, and tolerance, along with the memory of the good bits.

The holiday for old lovers is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, rather than Valentine's Day.

*

I have the perfect book for Valentine's Day. It's in the category of Extravagant Love Stories, like the movies Groundhog Day and Somewhere in Time, or the book The Time Traveler's Wife.

David Levithan's novel Every Day is about a sixteen-year-old who wakes up every morning in a different body, in a different life.

Each day, it's a life that's already in mid-flow. The person has parents and siblings (or not), loves and desires, hobbies and projects, assignments and jobs, and the hero of the story is given a single day in which his decisions and actions, using their body, their voice, their position in the world, will either enhance or subvert their lives.

I say "he" but in fact he's as likely to be in a girl's body as a boy's, with every kind of girl or boy, with every shading of desire. So when he wakes up in the body of a boy named Justin who has a girlfriend named Rhiannon, he doesn't fall in love with her because she's a girl, but because of the person she is.

And so, for the first time in his life, he starts to take his host bodies on long jaunts to where he can find some way to be with Rhiannon again. For a few days, he befriends her as a new person, falling in love with her more and more -- but without her having a clue that he's the same person she was with before.

Yes, she remembers that she had that one perfect day with Justin, after which Justin returned to being the selfish jerk he has always been. And she really hit it off with Megan and Nathan.

The one consistency is that the hero -- who calls himself "A" instead of a name -- is able to maintain an email account that he uses every day, making sure to erase his browser history. It's through that email account that he is able to begin explaining things to Rhiannon.

When he is able to persuade Rhiannon that he's not insane, that his story is true -- because he remembers details no one else could know about of her time with Justin, Megan, and Nathan -- the real complications begin.

I'm not going to repeat the entire plot to you; suffice it to say that A has evolved his own rules of morality. First, in other people's bodies he tries to do no harm. He doesn't want to leave them injured or ruin their friendships.

And when he finds himself in a life that's really a mess, he tries to do what he can, in a single day, to try to make things a little better.

There are other rules that he has no choice about. He tends to go into bodies that are just about the same age as he is -- so when he was five, he was in a five-year-old's body every day, and now that he's sixteen, he doesn't pop up in a ninety-year-old's or a baby's body.

It means he's always at about the right maturity level for the life he's taking over for the day; except that, having truly lived inside so many lives, he has a degree of tolerance for differences that is quite extraordinary.

I was sorry that Levithan, who is so careful to be fair even to jerks and predators, makes it so that the one truly loathsome experience is to be in the life of a fat person. I wish that weren't the one remaining bigotry that people who pride themselves on tolerance still indulge in. But it's obvious that Levithan has never been fat, or he could not write that day's experiences so uncompassionately.

Weirdly, each day really does end at midnight -- even if he's not asleep, he is wrenched out of the body. This, of course, makes no sense at all -- our clocks are set, not by any natural boundary, but by artificial time zones. One wonders if his cycle adjusts to daylight savings time. But the story is good enough that you can choose to overlook a few kludges in the mechanics of the world-creation.

Another rule that A is forced to live by is geographical. Each day's new body tends to be one that is only a few hours' driving time from the place he went to sleep. This is convenient -- it means that A really does have a chance, most days, of working things out so he can see Rhiannon, especially when she is cooperating with him.

But then there's the boy whose body he enters, whose family is going to Hawaii for a wedding. The flight is westward, so they'll get there before the clock hits midnight, but then he'll jump to someone else's body in Hawaii, and how long will it be before he gets into a body that is flying back to the mainland, let alone to the part of the country where Rhiannon lives?

He's able to solve that one, but it's the central dilemma of the story. What kind of relationship can they have when he is never the same person twice, when he can't control who or where he is from day to day?

Think of all those body-switching movies. They are sometimes pretty good, with a real effort to make the characters feel real. The best of them, Steve Martin's All of Me, is one of the great love stories in film.

But they always have consistency, and they always have a way to get things back to normal. Levithan gives himself no easy out. Funny as the events sometimes are, Every Day is not a comedy. It's a story of unrequited love. It does not deny its premise at the end.

Even though an unexpected option is opened for A and Rhiannon, they are genuinely Good People and do not take what they want when the cost is borne by others.

Was that a spoiler? Not when it's the ending that is inevitable from the start; Levithan follows the relentless logic of the world and the characters he has created. Anything else, and I would not be recommending this book so highly.

Because I think this is one of the best novels of the year. Maybe the very best.

Because Levithan is an excellent writer of the kind that I admire. He does not call attention to himself as the author -- there are no prose passages that force you to admire them at the expense of the story. Instead, he keeps you always inside the life, the lives, of the characters.

His writing is absolutely clear, and because he's not dealing with time paradoxes -- like those in The Time Traveler's Wife, which made it almost impossible to tell the story in any kind of coherent order -- he tells this story in perfect order, one thing after another. A few flashbacks when they're relevant, but nothing to confuse the reader.

In fact, Every Day is a model of clarity, which means that it has an absolutely brilliant style, so pure that you don't notice it, and it tells its story so perfectly that you don't need anyone to explain it to you.

In other words, there is no reason for a professor to intervene in the reading of this book. There is nothing for a teacher to add.

Yet this book could be used in high school. Even though A passes through lives of every shading of sexuality and gender, and like any sixteen-year-old he is susceptible to sexual desire along with the desire for friendship and companionship and belonging, he never actually has sex with anybody.

This book could be read by any intelligent teenager; the only thing that would wreck it is if a teacher required students to find "the theme" or decode some hidden "meaning." Levithan isn't hiding his meaning.

It's about the persistence of love; it's about what virtue really is (strength to act against desire); it's about the moral choices and why good is good and evil is evil; it's about honor and trust; it's about loneliness and belonging; it's about life.

Which means it's about all the important stuff that all good fiction is about, whether the writer realizes it or not. And that means that a teacher who gave this to her high school students would serve them best by sitting back and listening to them talk about it, adding nothing, judging nothing, grading nothing.

This book will feel important to most of them; those who don't respond to it are not wrong, they just aren't at a place in their lives where they're ready to receive it. A teacher wouldn't assign this book with the idea that it's a Great Book (though quite possibly it is); what the teacher would say is, "I think this is a good story about things I care about, and I think you'll like it, too." Period.

Why, then, would you require students to read it at all?

Because I think one of the primary goals of assigning books in school should be to instill a love of reading.

Most of the things teachers make students do with books achieve the opposite -- they convince students that if a book is "good," they'll hate it, and if they love a book, it "isn't good."

Sometimes I think that's half of what English teachers mislearned in college: that literature is "good" only to the degree that it is unenjoyable to read.

The opposite is true. Over the long haul, when academic interference is eliminated, the books that remain as classics are those that reward the reader with a story that can be cared about and believed in.

That is what Every Day is -- a story to care about, a story full of human truth, a story that needs to intermediary to explain it, a story with power to awaken and enlighten the reader.

And if you are thinking of what book you'd like to read yourself, for no better reason than the pleasure of a good story, this may well be that book. At only 322 pages, with big type on a small page, it isn't long at all. I read it in a single sitting, though grownups with responsibilities may have to divide it into several reading sessions.


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