Potlatch, as Wikipedia will tell you, is a gift-giving festival and primary economic system practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and United States. This includes Heiltsuk Nation, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, and Coast Salish cultures. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning to give away. In essence, potlatch is war waged with gifts, a means of destroying one's enemy with obligation through the display of such generosity as to place them forever in your debt. It's the offer that cannot be refused, the thermonuclear strike of passive-aggressive behaviour.
The first Valentine's Day card I ever received had cartoon mobsters on the front in keeping with its promising that I was about to be made an offer I could not refuse. Opening the card, the subject of this offer was identified as the person of an anonymous sender simply referring to herself as me. For about an hour I was delirious, believing this to have been sent by Anne-Marie Polley, a red-haired girl sat in the front row of the biology class. I had idolised Anne-Marie for a long time, writing truly shitty poetry which I never showed anyone, imagining improbable and slightly lurid scenarios in which my bicycle succumbed to a flat tire directly as I passed her house, with this one thing inevitably leading to another. Now that it's no longer 1979, I find it impossible to guess at whatever drive singled out Anne-Marie for my distant attention. She was tall and a little skinny with freckles and Deirdre Barlow glasses. I'm not sure if she had a particularly interesting personality because I never summoned up the courage to speak to her. I have a feeling her appeal may have been that she was conspicuously available, and I had decided on some subconscious level that she wasn't really in a position to be picky.
It turned out that she was at least a little picky. The furtive glances and chortling from the front row were not shy, girlish excitement, but probable discomfort deriving from her having been stitched up by the cartel of girls who sent the card. She was apparently flattered by my interest, but still, she unfortunately had some standards. The same could not be said of myself judging by the quality of the unusually shitty poetry I wrote that evening in response - the grey, heartless universe that had murdered me to death until I was a bit like a zombie or a Frankenstein, and so on...
The next Valentine's Day greeting I received came a few years later, a preposterous and over the top gushfest with hearts and puppies on a card large enough to temporarily shelter two homeless people. Both ridiculous and appreciated, it had been sent by girlfriend number one in a fit of irony. The initial irony was that we both wore black clothes and liked industrial music and so, as part of some ill-defined cultural elite, were therefore above sending such hilariously tacky cards. The second level of irony was that we separated soon after on the grounds of her having met some boy who wore even darker clothes and that I now lived 150 miles away. This was because I'd moved to Maidstone, Kent in order to pursue a degree in really, really expressing my inner self.
I had a couple more Valentine's Day cards whilst at Maidstone, received as part of a pact drawn up between myself and two girls from the illustration course. Ain't no-one gon' send us shit, we agreed, so let's cleverly send cards to each other and pretend we don't know who they're from. It worked, but didn't feel that great seeing as I fancied one of these girls to a quite sickening degree, and had therefore sent a genuine Valentine's Day card with the pretext of it pretending to be genuine, just like in a Philip K. Dick novel.
The tenth anniversary of my first Valentine's Day card came and went, and I met girlfriend number two. She was a friend of a friend who caught my attention with what might be argued as having been the first true Valentine's Day card I received - true here defined as a card anonymously sent by someone you don't know very well and who is interested in the contents of your pants. A relationship ensued, perhaps not the greatest relationship in the world, but not without its merits, and it took us both where we needed to go, if that doesn't make it sound too much like a management training exercise.
Now returning to the theme of potlatch, in September 2005 I became involved with girlfriend number three. For the sake of anonymity I'll call her Marian - although as that's actually her name I ask the reader to pretend I mean a different person called Marian.
Marian had issues - self-esteem, motivation and the usual bullshit - which she dealt with by attending a series of dubious self-help courses and learning how to accept that almost anything could be blamed upon someone else through application of the right sort of tortured logic.
'You have just shot me in the foot using a handgun,' I might point out as I bled onto her expensive carpet.
'Oh! So now I'm not allowed to shoot you in the foot using a handgun?! That's the law now is it?!' Marian would screech, eyes popping out of her head as a precursor to that thing which Karen Gillan equates with acting when playing Amy McBoggle in The Doctor Who Show. 'It always has to be about you, doesn't it!'
Being something of a knob, I always imagined she might improve over time. She might notice how I didn't spend every waking minute being angry at something or other, how I actually had a job and seemed relatively happy. I hoped she would ask herself how can I learn to be more like that? Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself always seemed like a nice idea, and hopefully one that could be spread without too much of a headache.
Valentine's Day approached, and Marian informed me how she had certain expectations regarding the quality of my offering, and she was not looking to be disappointed. By this time I'd grown accustomed to brushing off such low level emotional blackmail, rationalising it as simply a part of Marian's unusual and potentially delightful personality. Within weeks of the formation of our relationship she had explained to me how easily she grows bored with people, so I would therefore need to ensure that she had cause to remain interested. I imagine she thought she was helping me out.
I'd already been planning a fairly distinctive Valentine's Card, regardless of the ultimatum. I had recently got back into woodworking, having made myself a load of shelving, and so I made a card from two squares of thick pine the size of LP record sleeves. These I joined with hinges, cutting a heart-shaped hole in the one I had chosen for the cover, then painting the whole thing. It was laborious and absurdly extravagant, but the point was here, I made this. I love you, and although you just keep on giving me bullshit, I put all this effort into something to show you that I care regardless, and that you will always be able to rely on me, and you might therefore like to think about cutting out some of the crap. Look at this and tell me again how I only ever think of myself.
The evening of February thirteenth, Marian pointed out that tomorrow would be Valentine's Day, and began to explain to me when and where she expected delivery of her card, and how she did not want to see my name written within so as to preserve the tradition of Valentine's Day card anonymity and avoid spoiling the magic. I said that I had not signed the card with my name, but that as it was rather large I would be unable to post it through her letterbox as per her instruction.
'I'll leave it on the table,' I said.
'But then I'll know who it's from.'
I could see a spark of anger in her eye, the fires ignited by always having to do everything herself and so on and so forth.
'Well, yes,' I sighed, 'but I'd really rather not just leave it on the doorstep, and you already know who it's from.'
'You don't understand,' she raged, this being her standard reaction to anything other than compliance. You have failed to obey, went the logic, therefore you cannot have understood what I said. The argument ran around in a circle for maybe an hour. In the morning I left my stupid wooden card on her living room table, because that was the only practical option. When I returned later that day, no comment was made, although it was still there on the table.
'Did you get my card?' she asked with a slightly superior tone, speaking with the authority of one who had correctly observed tradition and thus preserved the magic, unlike some...
'Yes,' I said. 'Thank you.'
Having developed an unusually healthy sense of that which she saw to be her due, I believed she might question the sincerity of my gratitude, something she did often. Instead she asked if I had liked it.
The card had appeared through my letter box that morning and it had not been signed. It had been purchased in a local card shop, and I'm pretty sure I'd been present when she bought it. It was one of a typically twee series by greetings card artist Giles Andreae, The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton which Google describes as quirky and philosophical musings on life. She had given me Edward Monkton cards at Christmas and on my birthday, and I still didn't know how to tell her I found Andreae's wearying brand of self-conscious surrealism profoundly depressing. The thoughts were neither interesting nor even particularly funny, the sort of thing that happens when people who run holistic healing workshops try to prove that they too have a sense of humour:
These drawings would like to be your friends. Use them for inspiration. There is no corner of life into which they cannot shine the bright torch of insight.
See what I mean? I hadn't liked the card, but I said that I did because it was easier. If I had said no she would have explained that her card had been carefully chosen whilst mine showed neither thought nor effort, contrary to what I might cheekily describe as evidence. For Marian, social interaction was a form of potlatch. It was all about the value of what you could give being by definition less than the value of what she could give, and because she wasn't really in the habit of giving anything, she became an expert in promoting and inflating the worth of her own stock. She eventually addressed my handmade wooden card in terms of suggesting that I should think about making more and selling them to people, thus I suppose finally acknowledging that it hadn't been a complete waste of time.
I've never been a huge fan of Valentine's Day. There's just too much that can go horribly wrong, not least because if you can only really express your feelings to someone by sending them a card on the same day every other bozo in the universe is sending a variation on the same card for the same reasons, then frankly you're screwed; and no-one likes being reminded of that. I often wondered why Marian was always so angry, and in the specific case of Valentinesgate, I'm in two minds. Perhaps the incident served as a painful illustration of the utter futility of our relationship; or perhaps it was simply that she just needed to be angry about something, that thirst for feeling wronged because it's easier than accepting that maybe you were the one who messed up; but actually I hope it's because just for once during those three crappy years, I beat her at potlatch.