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Making an appointment for spontaneity

No matter what the time of year, it's always some special week or another. International Metric Measures Week. Left-Handed Golfers Week. East Coast Coconut Donut Week. Even with doubling up, 52 weeks are not enough, and any day now we anticipate celebrating a week sponsored by the Society for 53 Weeks a Year.

In all the confusion we were celebrating Irrepressible Punsters Week just the other week when we learned too late that it was also Jazz Week.

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We were sorry to find out what we had missed. After all, we had been there -- Monday through Sunday as usual. But we derived some comfort from concluding that Jazz Week, if you think about it, is a contradiction in terms. The essence of jazz is supposed to be improvisation, and how can you really schedule that?

A fine point perhaps. But more and more, we all seem to resemble those schools that, not daring to leave impulse to chance, block it into their programs: 10-10:30 -- Spontaneous activity.

Some time around Jazz Week, NBC produced a half-hour pilot, starring Jonathan Winters. The premise of the program was boldly advertised: Here is a master of improvised comedy, winging it. Right off the top of the head, you understand. True spur-of-the-moment stuff.

But then all the safety nets slipped into place. Winters was surrounded with celebrities -- Jimmy Stewart, Rich Little, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Paar -- all working from scripts. Coy sights gags were set up. The tapes got edited.

Jonathan Winters is a natural marvel, but he was a bird on a string as far as winging it went. Nobody had the faith that he could fly.

Jazz Week and Jonathan Winters are random examples of a confusion about spontaneity that is not random. In theory we revere spontaneity; as it has seldom been revered before. We are the generation that doesn't want to live by the rules -- but we've turned that into a rule too.

We even make a technique out of trying to look spontaneous -- blow-drying the "natural look" into our hair, pressing the slightest crease out of our "casual" but carefully prefaded jeans.

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Like the producers of the Jonathan Winters show, we write down the ad libs in our life, tape well ahead of time, and store canned laughter on the soundtrack just in case.

It's as if we're still terrified at where we find ourselves after all the revolutions of the '60s -- supposedly liberated, but secretly fearing spontaneity like a leap above an abyss.

And so we preach total freedom, and keep hedging the bet. Take another market survey. Hire another sample poll ("How, on second thought, do you feel about spontaneity?") Run the whole business through the computer.

Then, if everything tests out, we'll be spontaneous . . . if only somebody will write down the instructions, and a couple of insurance policies while they're at it.

We've gotten over that first naivete of let-it-all-hang-out. We've learned that spontaneity involves risk, and we don't quite know what to do with the knowledge.

We're not wrong about spontaneity -- about improvisation in art and in life. "Inspired" means literally "comes in a breath." In the end, everything is spontaneous.

No matter what goes before, no matter what comes after, always there is that moment. The match spurts. The candle ignites. The darkness is banished.

But that moment has a frame about it. It is waited for, prepared for with some sense of order, some measure of expectation that goes beyond a private confidence in the ego or the talent or the will.

The other half of spontaneity, besides risk, is trust, and that seems to be the half we have forgotten. Until we do remember, our efforts at spontaneity are likely to remain more proclamation than substance.

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