OUR VACATION is weeks away, but my wife Sandy and I not only have our plane tickets in hand, we've already packed.
Windbreakers, sweaters, hiking boots for the mountains fill the suitcases.
No last-minute rush to the airport for us or like the friend who made it on time -- but without her traveler's checks.
For a long time, I never thought of myself as being an organized person. But friends and co-workers tell me I am, so I've come to believe them. They think it's a talent -- like having a beautiful baritone. They hint it's a freakish talent that manifests itself in strange ways.
No wonder. When I'm at my desk, the only papers and books on it are those I need for that day's work. Before I leave for home, everything is put away. That is strange behavior, indeed, to colleagues whose desks tumble over with a year's debris.
I tell them I spent two years as an Army clerk handling classified material and I just got into the habit of locking everything up. But that's probably not true. The Army made me shine my shoes everyday, too, and that's a habit I broke with the first scuffed toe.
I wake up every morning at 6, give or take 5 to 10 minutes -- without an alarm clock. On Saturdays and Sundays and holidays. Even if we've been out late the night before. Frequently enough to be spooky, as I open my eyes I'll glance at the digital clock and find it reading exactly 6:00.
Sandy also is organized. If you invite us for dinner at 8, we'll be getting out of our car in front of your house at 7:59 whether you're ready or not.
We're never late for anything. More often we're early. Too early, in the case of airplane flights, Sandy thinks. I always take into account the possibility of a flat tire or a traffic jam. When they don't happen, we show up first at the departure gate.
Naturally, we filed our income-tax forms in January, the same day the last W-2 form came from an employer. When others rushed to meet the April 15 deadline, our refund was only a memory.
We both work full time, share the housekeeping chores -- and keep the place in tidy order -- and Sandy studies for two classes; yet we are seldom rushed. There always seems to be time for everything. It's what characterizes an organized person, I think.
That's what amazes friends, who claim they lack the talent. To me, it's the way things always have been. It comes easily, the way singing on key does to other people. (We don't have children. That may help too.)
Government agencies, private corporations and even individuals pay good money to consultants to show them how to get organized. But maybe the organized are born, not taught. We have a friend who has never been on time in his life. He's always asking for advice and never taking it. His day ends before he's found time for lunch.
What keeps me most on schedule, I think, are the few minutes I take each morning before I crawl out of bed or as I jog before breakfast to preview the upcoming day. The household chores, the work projects, the night's entertainment sort themselves out in a mental list.
"Today is garbage day. Take out the trash on the way to the bus," I tell myself. "I need stamps. I'll leave for work 10 minutes early so there's time to stop at the post office." Big chores and little ones, the day falls in place.
Part of the process is mentally assigning time limits to each project. For example, I tell myself, "The interview will take at most an hour and a half. That gives me 45 minutes to get a haircut." Leave time for all those surprises that can complicate a day.
To be organized, we've developed a routine for recurring chores. Payday is Tuesday afternoon, so I take care of the week's bills and any other pending correspondence that night and then stop off at the bank on the way to work Wednesday morning. Creditors love an organized person.
We try to get tasks done as conveniently as possible. I haul a week's shirts and drycleaning on the morning bus, dropping it off near the office. Two nights later I carry it home on the bus. It interrupts my commute only a minute or two but saves a time-consuming special trip on Saturday. Just don't get caught in the rain with a bag of fresh shirts.
Organized people seldom run out of anything. I think it comes from the need to think ahead to really keep the chores in rein. The other day I went to buy a family birthday card. The store had such a good selection, I bought birthday and anniversary cards for the rest of the family through the next half year. They'll be in the mail in plenty of time.
When we prepare a main course for dinner we usually make enough for two or three meals and freeze the extra for later. It saves time and money.
Self-organizers have other characteristics that psychologists might better explain: We do the dishes right after dinner. We hang up clothes as soon as we take them off. We toss out newspaper and magazines regularly.
You probably think that's overdoing it, but the benefit is that small tasks are completed quickly before they grow into nagging burdens that take a whole Saturday afternoon to do.
And if you think all this makes us automations going about our workaholic day with internal time clocks taking note of every second, remember:
Being organized gives us more time to loaf.
But, we found last winter, it isn't always a blessing.
Early one Saturday afternoon, hours ahead of time naturally, Sandy and I finished all the preparations for a dinner party that night for 12.
The table was set. The flowers arranged. The ice bucket filled. A huge casserole, frozen days before, waited to be popped into the oven. The lettuce was washed and patted dry for the salad. Twelve individual raspberry parfaits sat in the freezer. Not a thing more to do except wait for the guests.
We built a fire, flicked on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, picked up a couple of books and drifted off into a nap. Sandy on the couch and me on the rug. We paid no attention to what was happening outside -- until the phone rang.
"Say Jim, Marge and I think the roads may be too slippery for us to make it to your place tonight," said Don, our guest of honor, a high-school friend from California.
Startled, I looked outside to see a heavy snow falling. The last weather forecast I'd heard had predictd no accumulation.
"Okay, Don, we'll make it another time." Sandy and I removed the first two settings from the table. One by one, the rest of the guests phoned to say they were snowed in.
Dinner for 12 became dinner for 2. The casserole lasted for weeks, but the parfaits disappeared before the snow.