Not all crazes are created equal.
Anybody old enough to have shopped in a mall circa 1975 remembers the Pet Rock. A California ad executive went all P.T. Barnum on his countrymen with this thing, inspired by his annoyance with all his friends going on and on about their pets.
This guy, Gary Dahl, became a marketing legend by buying a pile of gray stones from a building supply store, sticking 'em in handsome little boxes with straw and breathing holes, and foisting them on a country thirsty for laughs following the Vietnam War and Watergate. Mr. Dahl sold more than a million rocks, each of which included a detailed and witty training manual. He became a millionaire and inspired countless dreamers in the decades since to mimic his success by creating new must-have whatzits.
Most failed. In the mid-1980s, I interviewed a Roanoke, Va., man who had just sunk a small fortune into manufacturing small building blocks. They were individually boxed and buyers were instructed to put one on their living room floor and then jog around it so they could say they'd jogged around the block a dozen times.
A Jogging Block -- get it?
Yeah, nobody else laughed either. The creator lost a bundle. Still, I root for the next dumb idea whose time has come. Because when Americans have enough money to buy this kind of schlock, it tells me that times are not as dire as one might fear.
Thus, I offer you now, the Mayan Endtime Calendar, created by Steve Joseph of Mt. Lebanon.
You must have heard of the Mayan calendar by now. It's the pre-Columbian version of Y2K. The ancient Mayans had a long count of days that, by some reckonings, runs out Dec. 21, 2012. Some take this to mean the end of the world.
As one anthropologist put it, that's like thinking your car's going to blow up when the odometer turns over, but never mind that. This is our doomsday scenario du jour. Plenty of crazies have spent the past couple of years adjusting their tinfoil hats and climbing aboard. There's already been a blockbuster movie, "2012,'' and "The Simpsons'' will spoof the Mayans in this year's "Treehouse of Horror.'' So why can't a South Hills academic make a few bucks on a calendar?
I met Mr. Joseph, 55, at a North Side coffee shop for breakfast Friday morning. He'd reminded me that I knew his brother, Ken, from that time in 2000 when Ken circumnavigated Allegheny County in 15 Port Authority buses. (Those Joseph boys -- they're a little different.)
This Mr. Joseph is the dean of library services at Butler County Community College and also teaches an introductory course to world religions. The Mayans aren't part of that course, but last December it occurred to him that somebody ought to come up with a December calendar like the advent calendars his wife's mom sends each year at Christmastime.
"If a man can't risk his family's financial security on a crackpot idea," Mr. Joseph reasoned, "then why are 'The Honeymooners' still on the air?"
So in a move that would make Ralph Kramden proud and have Alice Kramden roll her eyes, Mr. Joseph sunk about 10 grand into getting 5,000 full-color calendars printed. Bob Manuel, manager of PVA Graphix in the Strip District, said they had a lot of fun researching the look of Mayan gods, and the result is pretty slick.
My personal favorite may be Dec. 8. Lift the little cardboard flap for that date and it says: "Watch 'Jersey Shore' to lose the will to live.'' Dec. 15 isn't bad either: "Practice your last words, unless you prefer 'Aaaaaaaah, it burns!' "
Like the Pet Rock, this calendar invites you to be part of the joke rather than feeling like some schmo who got scammed. The question now is how many people are going to think it's 10 or 12 dollars worth of funny. The calendars are available at www.mayancountdowncalendar.net and Mr. Joseph is busily cold-calling comic book stores, bookstores and such, but he needs to hurry. The sell-by date gives him less time than some cheeses.
If he does well, he can celebrate on his 56th birthday Dec. 15. The way he figures it, he'll have at least six days to party before the end.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.