There has been much talk recently of calendar reform. (Actually, there has always been much talk of calendar reform, going back to Roman times, but I needed a good opening line. The opening line I usually use is, “Detective Snarlwell sighted down the barrel of his Smith and Wesson at the naked navel of Candace Winsome as she pulled her blouse over her head,” but somehow that didn’t seem to fit.) I have been aware for some time that I ought to be looking into these social questions; between my tendency to doze off over my typewriter shortly after breakfast and my inability to remember anyone’s birthday, including my own, it has become increasingly clear that I ought to learn at least where in the year we are at any given moment.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that in terms of time, nothing ever seems to come out even. The year is not 365 and l/4 days long, but eleven minutes and fourteen seconds short of it; the month is not thirty days, but 29.531 days. The week therefore is a fraction of this, which comes out to something or other. However, human beings don’t like fractions; they like their numbers whole. Did you ever hear of a fourth grader coming home from school shouting, “We started fractions today, boy is that fun?” So, we round everything off—365 days in a year, 30 days in a month, 24 hours in a day. As a consequence, if you go jogging happily along this way for a while, you suddenly discover that Sunday comes on Wednesday and July falls in mid-winter. This, obviously, won’t do; who wants to shoot off Roman candles in a snow storm with the temperature falling into the teens? The effect isn’t the same.
Thus, every once in awhile somebody—usually a senator from Georgia who talks as if he were holding a sandwich between his teeth—announces that the thing has to be fixed. Sooner or later we all have to make a kind of awkward jump, like the skip-step soldiers make when they are out of step.
This, obviously, is a great boon for calendar makers, but a great nuisance for most people, who are now faced with changing the dates on their automatic watches, which nobody knows how to do. (Nobody I’ve ever met, anyway.) The answer, then, is to find some way of bringing all these chronologies into alignment. This is known as calendar reform.
I have been thinking about these things for a long time, mostly to keep myself from thinking about more important matters, like why I have trouble tying my shoes on certain mornings. Since one of the big problems is the fact that the months don’t coordinate with the year, which is around two percent of a day (there isn’t the remotest chance that I’ve got that figure right), the simplest solution is to get rid of the months.
What, in fact, use are months? There’s no getting around days: nearly everybody, except possibly my Uncle Clifford, who hasn’t been outside of the Cozy Foxhole since last October, has noticed that the sun comes up and goes down in a regular fashion; but whoever notices when a month is coming to an end? Sure, if you get up frequently at night you might notice that sometimes the moon looks like a yellow balloon and sometimes like a lemon cookie with a bite out of it, but who ever remembers what these things indicate? It isn’t the kind of thing that anyone concentrates on at three o’clock in the morning, especially when you’re reminding yourself not to drink California sherry again.
When you consider it, there are a lot of advantages to giving up the months. For one thing, most bills are due at the end of each month. If there are no more months, how could Con Edison know when to send out the electric bills? I can imagine a lot of harried executives at Con Ed arguing among themselves over this, one of them saying that the bills ought to go out on Thursday and another saying that they ought to have gone out last Monday. A little of this and they would no longer be on speaking terms and the bills would only go out when some low-level clerk with an interest in getting paid on Friday took matters in hand. When a bill arrives two weeks late you can pretend you thought it was for next month, giving you a clear saving of one month out of two.
That brings us to leap year. If you think you’re confused now, wait until you hear this. Back in the sixteenth century, somebody happened to notice that Easter was coming around the 4th of July (that isn’t quite right, but you get what I mean.), somebody a good deal smarter than he or she ought to have been figured out that if you skipped a leap year once every century in l700, l800, and so forth, matters would be improved. However, even this wasn’t perfect, so to get it right they decided that leap years would be skipped in years ending in 00, except in those years divisible by four hundred, that is 1600, 2000, 2400 and so forth.
Yet in this system, we still lose a day roughly ever 2000 years. If you can remember all this, you’ll always know when it’s time to put in the radishes and have the oil changed in the car, and then you can let me know.
If it hadn’t been for the Babylonians (it might have been the Sumerians), we wouldn’t be in this mess. They held the number sixty sacred. That’s why today we have 360 degrees in a circle, sixty minutes in an hour, sixty seconds in a minute. According to the Babylonians (or the Sumerians) the number twelve relates to the number sixty. The way they saw it, night was one thing, day was another, so they gave each of them its own twelve hours, which explains our system of measuring time.
In truth, the Babylonians (or the Sumerians) got a hell of a lot of things wrong. They also invented government officials, judges and taxes. If it weren’t for them, we’d be living in an idyllic paradise with no clocks, no taxes and little reason to get up in the morning, except to get The New York Times off the doorstep before somebody trips on it. Another thing the Sumerians or Babylonians got wrong was to insist that all hours are the same length, when it is perfectly obvious that some hours are twice as long as others, as for example when you’re waiting for a train you don’t realize you’ve already missed.
I hope this clears up the question of calendar reform. If it doesn’t, I couldn’t be more sorry, but don’t blame me when you turn up two days late for your nephew’s wedding reception. Just explain to him about the Babylonians (or Sumerians). I’m sure he’ll understand.