I AM SIFTING through the crimson ashes of unsold Valentine’s Day cards and See’s chocolate boxes, sticky from melted rejects.

As usual, I’ve missed the Saint’s Day, although not without some deliberation. Over the years and the boyfriends, I’ve learned to dodge the cloying fusillade of chocolate and flower ads. My mission has been to defend the integrity of postmodern womanhood against the blandishments of mercenary marketers.

The pink radioactive fallout, though, has mutated a population hitherto spared from false expectations, and whose previous engagement in the “holiday” has been out of obligation and brute guile. In other words, now it seems the guys have been brainwashed, and the gift-tables have been turned.

I present overwhelming anecdotal evidence: The other day, I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant near UC Berkeley. At the next table was a young couple, not particularly noteworthy except for the better spread they had on the table than mine.

I couldn’t help nearly choking on an oxtail, though, when I heard the man-boy lean back, sated, and say, “I can’t believe it’s almost 17 days until Valentine’s Day.”

And then he said it again.

“I can’t believe it’s almost 17 days until Valentine’s Day.”

It was all I could do not to dash some chili oil on his face and slap some sense into him. First off, given the very proximity of the intellectual center, he should have had at least one encounter by now with someone decrying the Hallmark industrial complex.

Second, his statement demonstrated gender rewiring that had gone seriously awry. He bought into the pulpy sensitivity act to get the chicks (at least he was having dinner with one), but he obviously was taking his lessons from “Temptation Island” and blood-diamond commercials.

Didn’t he know by now that most women keep E*Trade prospectus reports, not linens, in their hope chest? Consider the logic: You think women are going to reserve just one day out of the year for a colossal romantic meltdown when there are other equally good major holidays to spread the torture?

After the shock and smirking died down, I decided to look at it from his point of view. (OK, so it was the fortune cookie message that said “You should try to look at it from his point of view.” I think it’s called profiling.)

Anyway, although displays of affection are becoming more accepted and televised, perhaps the day freed him to be giddy, carefree, silly. Maybe, just as Seventeen and Cosmopolitan shaped the neuroses of a gender, men are discovering their need to be needy. They’ve joined the Banana Republic party, subscribed to Details magazine’s sexual-position-of-the-month club and still see the good-looking gay guys get the girls. Heck, there aren’t even any dashing romantic leading men anymore Benjamin Bratt and Matthew McConaughey are the safe foils to Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez.

Of course, all this is rubbish fortune cookie philosophies can only get you so far. As for the love of my life, he looked me squarely in the eye and declared the words that warmed my heart (“I’m not getting you anything for Valentine’s Day”). Still, that man-boy haunts me, as do the two guys walking on Market Street asking each other what day of the week V-Day was going to be.

So guilt sends me scrabbling for 2-day-old tokens of affection and to offer belated gift suggestions for women bedeviled by their partners’ complaints that they were the only ones in their office Wednesday without a Mylar heart-shaped balloon. My compromise is sticking to homemade tokens you know, stuff that’s lying around the house. After all, why should it be any different for them?

* Fire. Prometheus delivered up a serving of liver pate every day for his gift, and don’t think men haven’t appreciated it since then. They’ve tried every fire starter imaginable, from playing with matches to shining a magnifying glass on an ant and pouring fuel on charcoal. Bonus: Use Maxim as your combustible material.

* Anything titanium. If you have time to shop, nothing says love like it. How James Bond-like do you think he’ll feel when he totes around his titanium Apple Powerbook? (OK, I do own Apple stock, but only 20 shares.)

* Roll his coins in paper wrappers. Sure, you’re gift-wrapping his money, but I guarantee he’ll love it. Guys are like dogs who bury their bones in different holes and then forget where they put them. They pretend they’re indifferent to their loose change, muttering something like, “I don’t want it in my pocket.” Yeah, sure: THEN SPEND IT. Instead, they toss their legal tender everywhere, hoarding their coins in the hopes that one day we’ll go from the gold standard to nickel. At any rate, you could cheat and get those fancy automatic coin sorters at Sharper Image or use the counting machines at the grocery store, which takes a commission.

* Organize a backyard WWF match. Invite all the menfolk brothers, uncles, co-workers, neighbors. Get a trampoline and ladder (for leaping purposes), pump up the bounce house and roll the video camera. Bonus: You have an entry for “Most Dangerous Videos.”

In third grade, events editor Vera H-C Chan passed out red felt hearts on which she had individually chain-stitched classmates’ names. Blame repetitive strain injury for her antipathy.