If it's 2 a.m. on Saturday, are the stores still open?

THIS is the time of year when you begin to lose track of time if you're not very, very careful. You've been under instructions from Muzak to dream of a white Christmas ever since Halloween. And about now you have this feeling that you're wandering on an endless plain of fake snow and recorded jingle bells. You're never going to get to Christmas, but you're never going to get out of this no man's land of pre-Christmas, either. Once Christmas was Christmas Day, then it became Christmas season, now it occupies roughly the last quarter of every year. ``X more shopping days till Christmas. X-minus-1 shopping days till Christmas . . . .'' Has history known a bigger countdown?

Christmas takes so long to arrive that conscientious people wake up in the middle of the night screaming, experiencing a nightmare that -- after all the slow-motion prologue -- Christmas just whizzed past and they came up empty.

Boy, was Tiny Tim ever mad!

Of course, conscientious people don't really scream. They pull on their boots and mittens and stocking cap and work off their panic by slogging out to shop in the middle of the night. ``Open from 7 a.m. Friday to midnight Saturday,'' proclaim the ads, thereby disorienting further everybody's time warp.

As if keeping stores open seven days a week were not dizzying enough! Does anybody actually remember when stores took a day off, giving customers a day off, too -- a space-and-time to take one's bearings? Now the stores barely close for Christmas itself, and then it's on to the Great Post-Christmas Sale.

Well, you can't blame everything on the greening of Christmas, even though the 12 days of Christmas have become something closer to 12 weeks, and a true love can no longer hope to get by with a skinny little partridge in a scrawny little pear tree.

You can become time-warped just by watching television. Tanned young swimmers romp on Caribbean beaches, giving their all for an airline ad -- and to the right of the screen, maple logs snap and crackle in your roaring fireplace. ``Where am I?'' cries the poor, sun-drenched, frost-nipped double-dipper.

Ah the joys, ah the confusions of eating a fresh strawberry while staring out the window at an icicle!

``It's June in January,'' the old song insisted, ``because I'm in love.''

It's July in December because we're all mixed up -- double-timing it.

Somebody ought to invent a term for moral jet lag -- the feeling that you're living your life in two time zones at once. Thoreau's phrase about marching to a different drummer has taken on an ironical meaning. Each one of us seems to march to any number of different drummers -- and that's not counting the people who take drugs to speed up and slow down.

This Christmas, whether dilly-dallying toward the holiday or dashing -- on Donner! on Blitzen! -- a lot of us are already living in another time zone with our gift list.

VCRs, compact disc players, the latest of the latest personal computers -- we wire ourselves and our children into the future as if Spaceship Earth might sail into the 21st century without us.

When do we circle and land and center ourselves in one place, in one time, at peace with the present? If we can't get in sync at Christmas, when can we get in sync? This is the season of one star -- one point of reference. What a loss to live it out like Halley's comet! A Wednesday and Friday column

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