Until about 10 years ago, when men suddenly felt compelled to show they were sensitive and caring and blah, blah, blah, Valentine's Day was your basic low-pressure affair.
Back then a man could leave work at 5 p.m. on The Big Day Itself, duck into the nearest Rite Aid and bark at a startled sales clerk: "Those heart-shaped things . . . the samplers with the candies, what are they, chocolate or macaroons? . . . Any of those left?!"
Then he'd pick up a sappy Hallmark card, which invariably pictured a couple gazing rapturously at each other in a white gazebo along with the weighty inscription: "Our love is as endless as the cosmos."
That evening the man would present this bounty to his wife or significant other and be fairly certain that, while she might not commence turning cartwheels across the floor, she would at least be moved to flash an appreciative smile.
Now, though, many men find that the game has changed considerably.
"There's no question that women expect more now on Valentine's Day," says WBAL-AM talk show host Alan Prell, married for 12 years. "Now it's not enough that [a gift] has monetary value. Now it has to have real, quote, significance."
Boy, you talk about pressure. And adding to it is the fact that, like every other holiday (or in this case, pseudo-holiday), Valentine's Day has become big business.
Certainly, the traditional ways of showing affection are still popular: Feb. 14 remains the most profitable day of the year for the florist business -- more than 3 million roses will be bought and delivered in the Baltimore area alone.
Restaurants are packed with lovers of all ages. Greeting card companies still rake in the cash with their cornball missives, and Americans still purchase over $600 million worth of candy.
But, in many respects, that's the low end of the consumer scale. This year British Airways is asking in its print ads: "How far will you go to surprise your sweetheart this Valentine's Day?" and offering reduced rates to London ($499-$699) and Paris ($729- $979).
The Omni Inner Harbor Hotel urges lovers to "Get swept away by our getaway Valentine Weekend Rate" ($94).
Kay Jewelers sends out Valentine's Day fliers advertising diamond tennis bracelets ($1,299), diamond anniversary bands ($799), diamond engagement rings ($999.)
And Macy's Valentine's Day/all-purpose flier suggests that, sure, the Romance tin of Godiva chocolates ($12.50) would make a swell gift, but so would a nifty 31-inch Magnavox TV ($899) or that traditional gift lovers have exchanged for generations: an ivory leather sectional with bonus sleeper (a steal at $1,999).
Little wonder some men feel that to give a simple greeting card and Whitman sampler on Feb. 14 is to risk getting run through with a fireplace poker.
"Valentine's Day has gone from caring to commercial -- that's what distresses me," says Del. James W. Campbell, D-Baltimore, a bachelor who represents the 42nd District. "It used to be a day to show your caring for another person. Now it's about money."
Clearly, it was hard enough for men to adjust to the novel concept that now they were actually expected to put some thought into their Valentine's Day gift.
But this added emphasis on commercialism leaves some men more than a little unsettled.
"I start to feel pressured about Valentine's Day the day after Christmas," says Tom Gregory, a 45-year-old bachelor who teaches photography and art at Essex Community College. "Right after I've just spent hundreds of dollars for beautiful, wonderful gifts for people because" -- this is where you can almost hear the snicker over the phone -- "I care."
Mr. Gregory recalls a conversation with his girlfriend this past holiday season ("We haven't even gotten past the Epiphany!") that he found especially exasperating.
"Suddenly she says: 'Let's go to an island for Valentine's Day!' " Mr. Gregory remembers.
"And I'm thinking: 'Gee, whatever happened to flowers, dinner and candy? Fly off somewhere? Fly off somewhere?!' "
For the record, Mr. Gregory says he and his girlfriend will not be visiting Aruba today, or Antigua -- or even Arbutus, for that matter.
If many men seem puzzled as to exactly how they should acknowledge the day, perhaps it's because the origins of Valentine's Day are so puzzling.
According to "The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs," St. Valentine died in Rome through the persecution of Claudius II on Feb. 14, 270.
So how did this cheerful scenario evolve into a day when boys and girls of all ages declare their undying love for one another?
No one seems quite sure, although one medieval legend states that the saint, right before his execution, wrote a kind note to the friendly daughter of his prison master, signing it "from your Valentine."
This 11th-hour correspondence might explain the great American male tradition of waiting until the last minute to decide what to do for one's wife or girlfriend on Valentine's Day.
"I'm the worst when it comes to that," says WMAR-TV sports anchor Scott Garceau.