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Binary Man: Chocolate Or Flowers?

Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.

Valentine's Day has always given Binary Man pause: Romance is not something you write onto a calendar. It is not a scheduled event.

So Binary Man envies those who have made pacts with their loved ones to deny the Feb. 14 imperative and instead deliver tokens of love whenever the muse visits, with nary a glace at the calendar.

For the rest of us, there is this coming Saturday, an occasion on which florists and chocolatiers rake in as much as a quarter of their annual revenues, a day when a strange and somewhat distasteful mass test is administered. That test boils down to this: Did you get the right gift? Does your tangible expression of love match your partner's passion? In many cases, this means, chocolate or flowers?

Binary Man took to the streets, armed with dozens of roses and tulips and a big box of superb truffles and confections. Each stranger got to choose--a lovely, fresh flower, or a delectable, handmade bonbon.

Result: Yes, indeed, men are from Mars (the planet, and, as it turns out, the manufacturer, too) and women are from Venus.

"It's the gesture, the effort that goes into choosing," says Wendy McIntyre, a marketing manager and singer from Columbia. "It shows he's listening."

She is talking, of course, about flowers, as is her friend, Candice Daniels, a public relations executive from Waldorf. "Some men pay attention to what you like," such as her beau. "He knows I love lilies."

"Chocolates are fattening, roses aren't," says Adrianne Swales, a human relations director from Laurel. "And when flowers are delivered to your office, it says something. You get on the phone and call your girlfriends. Chocolates, eh, you get them at CVS."

Ouch, that's low.

But these chocolates are utterly unlike anything at the drug store. They're 70 percent cocoa, crafted with the finest ingredients. They're delicate, they smell heavenly, they're splendidly sculpted.

"It would take you a whole pile of M&Ms to get the same dose of cocoa," says Eric Nelson, co-owner of ACKC, the chocolate lover's dream house on 14th Street NW. The store is jammed this week, stocked up for the big day with fine confections and with novelty items such as chocolate body powder ("You put it on and then have somebody...," and he needn't finish the sentence), body frosting, tattoos, even a shower bar ("Not intended to get you clean.")

"There's the potential for a lot more body contact with chocolate than with flowers," Nelson says.

Out on the street, the men choose chocolate by a wide margin, though without much enthusiasm. The women, however, know what they want--and it isn't sweets. Hannah Bradshaw and Sherilyn Auerbach are giving Joshua Botman an impromptu lesson on why flowers are better.

"Chocolate you can get every day," Auerbach says.

"Plus--write this down, Josh--the guy has to pick out the flower; it's a personal decision," says Bradshaw.

Botman sticks to his guns. "I'd still do chocolate," he insists. "But a thoughtful chocolate."

For guys, chocolate is a no-brainer. Flowers die. Flowers take planning, advance orders, phone calls. "You can buy chocolate last minute," says Bryant Leaphart, a Howard University student from South Carolina. "And it's got health benefits."

Indeed, it does, as the chocolatier is quick to detail. "Women crave chocolate because their body is craving it, because magnesium is something they lose every month, and chocolate restores it," Nelson says. Fully 70 percent of his customers for confections are women, who seem drawn to the subtly flavored pieces, the lavender and the fleur de sel, the warm clove and the vanilla cognac. (Here's a college newspaper columnist arguing for chocolate as "nature's Viagra.")

Binary Man, being a man, would go with the mouth-watering stuff if he were buying for himself. Your humble servant, acting on his own bias, foolishly bought equal numbers of chocolates and flowers for this experiment. He needn't have: In more than 50 interviews, only one woman chose chocolate over flowers--and she was pregnant and attributed her choice to a temporary craving.

But the whole idea of Valentine's Day is to demonstrate a certain selflessness, a recognition that someone else is central to your existence.

And then there is that other element of the decision, the fact that Valentine's Day is an occasion for a public statement of love. The gift, in many cases, is a public expression of the most private of emotions.

"When a woman receives flowers at the job, they just get ecstatic," says Rick Lee, the fourth-generation proprietor of Lee's Flower and Card Shop on U Street in Shaw. "Women really like both chocolates and flowers, but with flowers, you're making a statement."

An expensive one--another factor Binary Man must consider. At nearly $100 a dozen this time of year, roses are no mere gesture. At that price, the competition, Lee says, is not just a box of chocolates, but high-end restaurants and the theater. Still, Lee's shop will likely sell 5,000 roses this week.

Maria and Ray Turner will not be among the customers. "Neither," Maria says when Binary Man offers her a tulip or a chocolate. "They're beautiful, but for us, every day is Valentine's Day."

They've been together for 45 years. At this moment, they're having lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl before heading out to the Inn at Little Washington to celebrate Ray's birthday. (Binary Man loves the high-low move.)

"We don't do Mother's Day or Father's Day or any of those commercial holidays," Ray says.

An honorable position, as is April Six's: "Flowers cost a lot of money, and I work for a non-profit, so I'm like, we have a future together, you should have saved that money so we could buy a house."

So, gents, there is no totally safe move here. Binary Man would advise you to skip both chocolates and flowers and do something that fits in neither a box nor a vase, but then, he wouldn't be Binary Man. Bottom line: As our survey showed, women overwhelmingly see flowers as evidence that you know their taste, care about their preferences, and want the world to see your devotion. Go with the flowers. But doesn't that obligatory public ritual detract from any true expression of love? Sure does, which is why you also need to pick another day, far from February, and say it better, in your own distinctive way.

By Marc Fisher |  February 9, 2009; 8:53 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Flowers, chocolates, a nice dinner and some La Perla lingerie marc. You are so far left.

Posted by: sheepherder | February 9, 2009 9:12 AM

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker...

Posted by: wiredog | February 9, 2009 10:15 AM

Still doing this Binary Man bit?

Posted by: sacomment | February 9, 2009 11:21 PM

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