For the hopelessly romantic, Valentine's Day is a time for Belgian chocolates, long-stemmed roses, and dreamy candlelit dinners.
For the just plain hopeless, it's a day of running to the drugstore at the last minute, buying heart-shaped cards that say "Wuv you," or forgetting the day altogether.
But for a great many lonely hearts out there, Valentine's Day is an unmitigated bummer. Some say it's a conspiracy by the Hallmark people - more about that later. Some say it's a time of false expectations, or no expectations at all. And as most professional counselors will tell you, Valentine's Day is the chief breakup day of the year.
"It's a day when people have their romantic expectations dashed on the hard rock of reality," says Joseph Rock, a clinical psychologist in Cleveland, Ohio, and co-author (with Barry Duncan) of the book, "Let's Face It, Men are @$$#%\$"
Perhaps not surprising, February is one of Dr. Rock's busiest months. "It can be a horrible holiday for a lot of people."
To walk past the rows of pink puppy-love cards in the supermarket and see endless florist advertisements on TV, you wouldn't know a day could cause such misery.
But a small movement of lonely hearts is fighting back against what they regard as a vast cupid-winged conspiracy aimed at ruining their happiness. It's a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, fought with anti-Valentine's books and cartoon Web sites. And if these romantic reformers are victorious, the nation will have a more realistic sense of love, or at least a few jokes to help with the longing.
At the forefront of the battle are Lynn Harris, a New York comedian, and Chris Kalb, a graphic artist. Together they created a Web site for the lovelorn: www.breakupgirl.com.
Visitors, who number 50,000 a month, can seek advice at a chat room, contribute humorous haikus, and catch up on the latest episodes of their cyber-superhero, Breakup Girl. Her motto: When it's over, she'll be right over. (Breakup Girl gained her superpowers of advice and empathy after being dumped by another superhero, Unreliable Man.)
"Just the act of having written or having gone onto the Web site, and finding out - in a nice way - that [the advice seekers] aren't as unique as they thought they were, is a good thing," says Ms. Harris, adding that her alter ego is Breakup Girl.
In her responses, which she sometimes consults a professional counselor on, Harris tries to keep the tone upbeat.
"It's not just 'You go, girl,' " she says. "We get rueful when it's appropriate, but it's not dead-end patheticness. The key is to find the fun without making fun."
Some letters ask for advice, such as "Dear Breakup Girl, my boyfriend broke up with me but he won't move out and he brings dates to my couch." Some come as haikus, such as this gem from Amy Keyishian: "Now that he is gone, I can say this without fear: I do not like jazz."
And a fair number involve intractable, but humorous, human dramas worthy of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Take Emma, for example, who found out her boyfriend was no longer in love with her when he sent her a wedding invitation "via overnight mail" indicating he was marrying someone else. The invitation arrived on Valentine's Day. But that wasn't the problem. She's over him. Her parents, however, aren't.
"The thing most of these people share in common is they always end up longing for what they don't have, and they don't even notice what they do have," says Belleruth Naparstek, a clinical social worker in Cleveland, Ohio, and Breakup Girl's backup for the tougher cases. "The cure is a simple thing. Look at what you have with beginner's eyes, and you can have all the romance that you want."
Rock agrees that romance is simpler than many people think, but he places the primary burden of figuring it out on the shoulders of men.
"It sounds idiotic to say this, but women, in many ways, are not that hard to please," he says. "They can be very specific about what they want, if only men would pay attention. But a lot of guys perceive Valentine's Day as a pressure to do something they wouldn't ordinarily do, and they don't want to be forced to do it. It's that adolescent unwillingness to be controlled."
So, until roses magically bloom from briefcases and lunchboxes transform into picnic baskets by the seashore, "women need to look at scaling back their expectations to conform with reality," Rock advises.
If only St. Valentine, beheaded by the Romans in the 3rd century, knew what he had wrought.
Now, about that conspiracy. People have long thought that the holiday was the creation of cardmakers like Hallmark, says Harris, "but it's much much more than that."
True, Hallmark is implicated in the conspiracy, she says, but so are Beanie Babies, Microsoft, and every weepy ballad singer that comes over the car radio.
But behind it all, "it's the government," Harris whispers dramatically. "They want to distract our attention away from Presidents' Day."