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Today, it's all about heart

Pleasanton stores, shoppers and students geared up for Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is a pretty big deal here in Pleasanton.

Cupid's arrow has found its mark in the heart of Pleasanton and the evidence of our infatuation with this season of love can be found all around town.

Sure, there are skeptics who argue it's a made up holiday with no real history. And yes, Wikipedia, History.com and other informational websites pretty much agree that the historical reasoning for celebrating hearts, flowers and all things romantic on Feb. 14 is murky at best.

But what does it matter whether the contemporary St. Valentine refers to a priest who continued to wed young couples even as Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage or if the Catholic Church purposely set St. Valentine's Day in the middle of a three-day pagan fertility celebration called Lupercalia?

Convoluted history aside, Cupid's arrow found its mark in the heart of Pleasanton and the evidence of our infatuation with this season of love can be found all around town.

Main Street hardly had time to pack away the garlands and lights of New Year parties before filling the windows with pink and red streamers and bows, but Laura Olson, executive director of the Pleasanton Downtown Association (PDA) said downtown merchants view every holiday as an important opportunity to come together as a community.

"The businesses have done a great job of merchandising and creating an ambiance that draws people downtown, to the heart of our city," she explained. "There are ways for everyone to share in the celebration, from romantic restaurant dinners to events for the kids to gifts for the family dog."

Longtime Pleasanton residents will recall this was not always the case. Not so long ago downtown restaurant choices were limited and shopping options were miles away.

"We are so lucky to have a downtown with one of the lowest vacancy rates and lowest turnover rates around," Olson pointed out. "Downtown used to be something you visited once in a while. Now, there are reasons to go every day. Events like Valentine's Day that bring people to the shops and restaurants, help to keep people aware of all that we offer. And people are responsive to our merchants' efforts."

Pleasanton residents Holly Shafer and Susan Weiglein agree with Olson's assessment. The two friends recently made a day of getting ready for this Saturday's big event, walking from one end of town to the other and adding bags at nearly every stop.

"The stores are filled with great choices -- we found everything we needed for our husbands and kids," Shafer said.

The pair's final stop of the day was Gourmet Works, where owner Kathy Starkey and her daughter, Jessica, helped the ladies select the perfect handmade chocolates and Valentine-themed decorations and complete their Valentine's Day to-do list.

"Between Feb. 13 and 14, we will sell over 2,000 chocolate dipped strawberries," Jessica said. "But on Feb. 13 we will only have maybe five or six pre-orders." The rest are all last minute hopeful locals, counting on the Starkeys to anticipate their Valentine needs. Predictably, Kathy added, these panicked customers are almost exclusively husbands.

"Women have been shopping for Valentine's Day since mid-January," Kathy explained. "As soon as the pink and white displays go up, they start buying the dishtowels, the cute signs and the heart decorations to get the celebration going around the house. But even with all those reminders around, the men don't think about it till the last minute."

Whether or not these last-minute Lotharios deserve it, the ladies of Gourmet Works make sure some of the 2,000 pounds (that's right, one ton) of chocolate they will sell by the end of the day will be prettily packaged and waiting for pickup.

Luckily for those gentlemen, John DeKoven isn't in charge of Valentine's Day.

For the past eight years, one of Pleasanton's favorite comedians has hosted the Anti-Valentine's Day Comedy Bash, offering a respite from romance for those who view the holiday with a bit of cynicism. Though his original concept was to offer audience members the opportunity to publicly denounce their failed relationships, DeKoven found most people are a little too enamored with love, or a little too scared of public speaking, to share their stories of love lost.

"I even had a paper shredder on stage so that people could shred pictures of their ex," recalled DeKoven. "But only one guy ever used it."

While there is reluctance to use the comedy club as therapy, DeKoven says everyone is happy to poke fun at what some consider a Hallmark holiday.

"Valentine's Day is a sham," DeKoven opined. "Restaurants hike their prices for dinner, flowers are more expensive. Anything you buy on the 14th you can get for 50% off on the 15th. Except tickets at the Comedy Bash -- the price stays the same for every show."

Don't let DeKoven's mocking persona fool you; deep down the guy is happy to find romance flourishing at his Anti-Valentine's Day show. "The audience is filled with couples," he pointed out. "And at least two first dates at Anti-Valentine's shows have ended up in marriage. Laughter brings people together, you know."

Anyone looking to cure the Anti-Valentine's Day attitude should consider stopping by one of the elementary schools across the city.

Cara Palmer, a first-grade teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary, confirmed that classroom celebrations took place, with Valentine-themed centers enhancing the learning. Though her walls were decorated with silver-wrapped cardboard kisses featuring each student's preference for Hugs or Kisses, times have changed a bit -- and it's not all about the sweets these days.

"Now we are moving away from the focus on candy and talking more about a year-round theme that is important to all of us at Walnut Grove: kindness," Palmer said. "It works well with Valentine's Day."

First-grade student Abbie agreed with her teacher. "We have a kindness calendar for homework this month," she explained. "Every day we are supposed to do something kind for someone because it makes people feel good."

Candy may have taken a back seat, but Abbie said the most traditional element of the Valentine's Day school party remains: the decorated shoebox. "I've already started making the box," she promised. "It's where you put the cards from your friends."

There's a lot of kindness happening at Amador Valley High School, where Valentine's Day has become an opportunity to share the love with the school's adopted charity, the George Mark Children's House in San Leandro.

Leadership students Lexi Ewanich and Lauren Cabral have worked for weeks to coordinate all aspects of the "Mr. Amador" fundraiser that begins with Valentine-grams and culminates with an all-male beauty and talent show on April 13.

"The 10 Mr. Amador nominees are the best representatives of the spirit of Amador," Ewanich said. "They put in a lot of time and effort for several months to make the event a success."

The dedication pays off. Last year the school raised $18,000 for George Mark; this year the goal is $25,000.

Mr. Amador is clearly a labor of love for the boys. They want to talk about the Saturday they spent at the George Mark Children's House, learning what palliative care encompasses, learning what it means to the families of these terminally ill children to have a place like George Mark in their lives.

The boys want to make sure everyone understands the importance of the work that is done there.

"This is one of two places in the United States that provides this type of end-of-life care for children," explained Michael Grozier, a junior nominee for Mr. Amador. "What they are doing there is important."

"This ties right into Valentine's Day," senior Andy Buck said. "It's all about caring for others. All of the workers there, all of the volunteers, they have the biggest hearts. It's the most heart-warming place I have ever been."

The boys get it -- it's all about the heart.

Spending time with friends downtown, sticking around past closing to make sure someone else's day is happy, filling up boxes with hand-signed notes and dedicating time to raise money for a cause that is bigger than yourself are all ways the people of Pleasanton are sharing their Valentine's spirit.

Whether or not it is a real holiday, Pleasanton is celebrating Valentine's Day because, as young Abbie put it, doing something kind makes people feel good.

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