Mrs. M and I recently learned that this is the week that the department stores like us to celebrate “Valentine’s Day”.
I approve of this special day, because hey, love and romance are good things. So are little paper hearts that you and your kids create and draw pictures on. But as usual, there are some sneaky aspects to the special day that tend to confuse standard consumers, mixing positive emotions with unnecessary activities.
My wife and son spent a good amount of time over the weekend cutting up pieces of colorful scrap paper to become Valentine’s day cards for his twenty four kindergarten classmates. They even added silly designs and created some simple origami dragon heads that pop out and attack you when you open the card. It was a great way to pass an hour or two of a Sunday while I lingered nearby cleaning up the kitchen and making some supper.
On the actual V-day, he delivered the fancy cards to his classmates, and was pleased to receive almost 24 cards from the other kids in return. We all had great fun reaching in over and over again to the paper bag he brought home from school, reading each card and checking out the design.
But there was something odd about the cards. Almost all of them were manufactured and store-bought rather than made at home, and about half of them came equipped with plastic trinkets and/or chunks of candy. Things had changed quite a bit since I was a kid. My son was still delighted, of course, and he meticulously pulled off the candy pieces and stored them in a separate pile for safekeeping. Surely an early sign of a tendency for ‘stashing.
I’m certainly not criticizing or demeaning my fellow Kindergarten parents. These are hardworking and honest folks who love their kids, and they are participating in one of our fun cultural traditions in the only way they currently know how to do it. Most people in this world are not Mr. Money Mustache readers, so we must forgive them.
But from my own vantage point, I still marveled at sheer amount of waste that went into even this small paper bag of trinkets. I couldn’t help multiplying it across the nation’s tens of millions of young children, and imagining the industrial printing presses in China, the liquid plastic pouring into molds, the delicate hands of the foreign factory workers rapidly sorting cards and action figures into bins and packages, the trans-Pacific cargo ships churning their thirty-foot propellers through the saltwater, cranes in Los Angeles, 30,000 horsepower BNSF freight trains straining to cross the Rocky Mountains, forklifts transferring pallets of cardboard boxes from railcar to transport truck, more forklifts shuffling the boxes through the loading bays of Target and Wal-Mart, teenagers stocking the shelves, and eventually the garbage trucks hauling the goods a few weeks later to a 390-acre landfill, with diesel compactor machines rolling over the mountains of trash and hundreds of seagulls scavenging at the periphery. Then silence as the plastic trinkets are buried under more trash, and begin a 100,000-year decomposition process.
I also marveled at the energy that went into just getting to and from the stores to purchase these things. “Oh shit!”, my fellow parents surely said sometime in the past week. “It’s Valentine’s day next week! I’m too busy to make anything at home – we’ve got two careers and two kids. Let’s get something quickly at Target”. So a 4200 pound minivan or SUV with a 240 horsepower 3.5 liter engine was fired up and piloted through a four-mile roundtrip of stop signs and busy intersections, parked in a giant parking lot, then returned to the driveway with its 400 pound aluminum engine still searing hot from the waste heat of petroleum propulsion. The energy expended in the 10 minutes of driving was about the amount an adult human needs to live for 96 hours. The haul from this expedition: about one ounce of plastic and paper.
That all sounds somewhat bleak, but also quite fascinating. And although you’ll think this is strange, my mind flashes through this sequence pretty much every time I think of buying a manufactured product, or see someone else buying one. It’s a bit painful, which is why you occasionally hear me talking about punching really blatantly wasteful people in the face. But it is a good pain, because it is the byproduct of understanding how the world actually works. With knowledge comes power, and also a refreshing freedom from the burden of wanting so many manufactured things.
So what does this all have to do with Valentine’s Day? It’s the same thing it has to do with every other major consumer holiday. It’s the idea of using your newfound Mustachian Training to identify the underlying joy and feeling within each of our cultural occasions, and unpack it from the unnecessary glossy consumer packaging. Experienced readers will notice that I write a rant like this for pretty much every special day of the year, shooting it down and yet simultaneously lifting it up so we can all start having some real fun around here.
Every Valentine’s Day, Mr. and Mrs. Money Mustache have traditionally gone out to some sort of nice romantic dinner, or stayed home to cook one. If we’re going out, we won’t do it on the actual February 14th, of course, since that’s when everyone else does it and the restaurants are busy. A day or two before or after is a much better choice.
And if it’s romance you have in mind, you don’t necessarily need flowers that somebody else grew or an expensive chunk of jewelry that someone else made. What about making a new resolution to deliver more attention and respect to your mate instead? What about making a point of grooming yourself to top condition, wearing the clothes your partner happens to find you most attractive in, and delivering a kiss that is entirely too sexy for people who have been together as long as you have, at an entirely unexpected time or place? If you throw in a multi-course meal with dessert, you’ve beaten any diamond ring in terms of creating good memories.
Valentine’s day is one of my favorites. Just don’t let the confused spendy consumers around you dull its intensity by mixing it with rounds of retail shopping.