washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook > Articles Inside Outlook

It Sure Gets Late Early

Time to Book the Beach House

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B05

Once upon a time, January didn't even have a name. In the early Roman calendar, January was part of a period of undesignated days in the middle of winter. The reason those weeks didn't have any identity is that there probably wasn't much going on. No wars, no weddings, no harvests. It was the hibernating stage of the year.

Of course, the days in question eventually got numbers and names (January comes from the Roman god Janus, who looks to both the past and future), and, after some shuffling around, the months were codified into the calendar we know today. But for centuries January remained a slow time of year, a time to recover from December, a time to maybe even risk coming down with the winter blahs.

Now the only thing I risk in January is messing up my family's entire year. Because January has become Plan-uary. It's the month of scheduling. In fact, for anyone aiming to do something summery eight months from now, January is often too late.

This is not a good development for a person whose family hurtles through the holidays, having a lot of exhausting fun involving religious celebrations of various stripes, vacation activities and one inconveniently placed birthday.

By January I need to catch my breath. I want to take my time packing away the decorations and presents, and look more closely at the cards and pictures we received.

I want to do the things responsible adults are supposed to do, like file last year's financial documents and label new folders for the coming year's blizzard of bills, statements, but mostly, it seems, health care paperwork.

I imagine drinking something hot during a cold January afternoon, gazing out the window at the bony landscape, feeling warm and expectant, wondering what the new year will bring.

But I don't have time to wonder what the year will bring -- I need to finalize it. Nail down the details. Wrap it up. Now.

Take summer camps, which start filling up in November. Not surprisingly, a 7-year-old who says in January that she wants to go to basketball camp might decide by late June that soccer is the only sport she can stand. But, of course, by then soccer camp will be full and you will already have paid for basketball camp and you do have to work -- so your poor child will have to resort to kicking a basketball around and pretending she is someplace else.

Family vacation is a problem as well. Two years ago we started trying too late (six months in advance, it was) to get frequent-flier tickets (Blacked out! Fully booked!) and wound up paying full fare for our family of four to visit the in-laws in Hawaii. This time, we made reservations 11 months ahead for our upcoming trip in August. And we still had trouble finding flights.

Good thing we already know where we're going for our vacation. Because whenever we wait till July to see what we really feel like doing in August we pay: Either we're unable to go anywhere because everything is sold out, or we fork over way too much money for the privilege, or the whole process of trying to make arrangements is so nerve-wracking it almost isn't worth it.

I've learned from experience that it is possible to find a vacation rental if I start searching when it's already hazy, hot and humid. But the options are limited. And I'm left wondering where we might have been able to stay if I'd only started earlier.

Life, I thought, is supposed to be open to possibilities -- not filled in, closed off, sold out! Scheduling so far in advance takes some of the fun and excitement out of even special occasions. (Or extends the stress. We just got our eldest daughter's bat mitzvah date -- more than two years away.) And the result is that there's really no time you aren't planning something. If you're perpetually thinking so far ahead, can you really enjoy the moment?

Now, I can plan with the best of them. My family has regular meetings where we go over the schedule for the week, which I then post on the refrigerator (I've stopped short of color-coding, but I have a friend who does that). I've bought into the container obsession, too. I've spent a small fortune on bins and baskets; and, for me, putting things in the places they belong is a form of therapy, a way of setting our chaotic little world to rights.

I do all of this fully aware that if we just got rid of some of the stuff or the activities, we wouldn't need the planners and calendars and boxes to keep up with it all. There's freedom in knowing that, if I choose, I can just say no to ice skating lessons and donate our excess scrunchies to the good cause of girls without enough hair accessories.

I can't compete, however, with those people who snatch up the best vacation houses in January, or the previous August. I bridle at being at the mercy of parents and vacationers who are more organized than I, and at airlines, camps and tourist destinations only too happy to put pressure on people to decide things early (check out the Web and see how many sites advertise "Reservations Can Be Made Up to a Year in Advance").

But then, I think, the fellow travelers I'm resenting are probably a lot like me, people whose time and families are precious to them, and whose resources are limited. People who have to scout and plan. People who, once they have learned that you must book reservations at the Grand Canyon's Phantom Ranch two years in advance, or buy "Nutcracker" tickets in July, are willing to do so, because they want their families to have a good time.

God bless 'em, every frantic one.

And Happy New Year.

Author's e-mail: changb@washpost.com

When she isn't planning for the future, Elizabeth Chang is a copy editor for The Post's Sunday Magazine.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company