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Jack Smith

It's a long, long while from May to December . . . but time flies with one of his calendars

January 28, 1986|Jack Smith

Robert Specht, one of the Rand think tank's thinkers, has finally got around to publishing his 1986 calendar, which is unlike any other calendar you are likely to see.

Whereas Rand itself annually publishes a calendar that begins each month with a weighty quotation from some great writer, thinker, poet, scientist or patriot, Specht is likely to quote as much nonsense as philosophy, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Also, his calendar has only seven pages, because when two or more months have the same configuration of days, beginning and ending on the same day of the week, Specht puts them on one page together. So we get January or October, February or March or November, April or July, and so on.

Of course that makes Specht's calendar useless for keeping dates on, because if you write down a luncheon engagement in the square for Thursday the 16th of January or October, you won't know whether it's in January or October.

Specht's quotations may be bits of verse, memorable dates, like the first Lone Ranger radio broadcast (Jan. 30, 1933), jokes or unattributed snippets of philosophy.

For example, he doesn't give the author of this one: "It is the goal of science to describe the world in terms of fewer mysteries, but grander ones."

Franz Kafka is quoted as the author of, "Lawyers: Persons who write a 10,000-word document and call it a brief."

A strange sentence, or non-sentence, by Douglas Hofstadter, illustrates its own point: "This sentence no verb."

I am honored to be quoted in January or October myself: "Since the dawn of history we have had experts. They have often been mistaken, if not usually."

In February or March or November we find a provocative little verse by Piet Hein:

Everything's either

concave or -vex,

so whatever you dream

will be something with sex.

Paul Harwitz makes a double-edged point: "A top-secret government study indicates that we wouldn't be any worse off if we let the economists predict the weather and the meteorologists predict the economy."

Another important date: "Quadequine, brother of Massasoit, introduces popcorn, popped in a deerskin bag, to the colonists."

In April or July, Mary-Claire van Leunen makes a point in the dilemma over sexist pronouns: "In this book, his is generic, not gendered. . . . Rather than play hob with the language, we feminists might adopt the position of pitying men for being forced to share their pronouns around."

I find a sympathetic spirit in Nicholson Baker: "If we exiled all that is nifty, careless, wildly exaggerated, light-footed, vulnerable, or curiously spiced from our spiritual landscape, we would be in terrible shape."

And here's a verse by George D. Vaill, treasured by all bird lovers:

The bustard's an exquisite fowl,

With minimal reason to growl;

He escapes what would be

Illegitimacy

By grace of a fortunate vowel.

Without attribution, we find a thumbnail description of the kind of person we have all met: "He is a charming, attractive disaster."

Here's a shrewd observation by a cocktail waitress serving an annual convention of the American Psychological Assn.: "I don't find a lot of common sense with this group."

In May we find one of those lucid insights by archy (Don Marquis' literary cockroach, who didn't use capitals because he couldn't work the shift key): "I suppose the human race is doing the best it can but hells bells thats only an explanation its not an excuse."

Memorable date: "May 1, 1873, U.S. issues first 1-cent post cards."

We can thank Stephen Sondheim for this clever verse:

To find a rhyme for silver

Or any "rhymeless rhyme,"

Requires only will, ver -

bosity and time.

In June, John Maynard Keynes laments the public image of his profession: "If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid."

Memorable date: "June, 1930. Sliced bread is first marketed. The Twinkie is invented."

In August, George F. Will explains God's failure to act: "This year, like the last 5,000 or so, confirmed the axiom that the only reason God does not send a second flood is that the first was useless."

In September or December, M. J. Moroney sounds a warning on our faith in statistics: "There is more than a germ of truth in the suggestion that in a society where statisticians thrive liberty and individuality are likely to be emasculated." (That's probably about 69% true.)

Mary-Claire van Leunen is quoted again, this time on pretentious authors: "An author who feels compelled to list himself as 'Ph.D' or 'Professor' or 'Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' has the scent of snake oil about him, no matter how respectable the designation he lays claim to."

Rachel Carson cautions us: "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."

It isn't in Specht's calendar but I am reminded of an observation made by the great American astronomer Dr. Harlow Shapley (as quoted in Science 85): " . . . the solar system is off-center and consequently man is too . . . he is incidental."

The next to the last quotation in Specht's calendar is attributed to me: "That's one good thing about dogs--they never worry about you being eccentric."

They don't worry about you not using the possessive pronoun your in that kind of sentence, either.

I think that's as hopeful a thought as we can face the year with.

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