Stand By - the Future Is Here

GLANCE at a calendar or look out the window these days and you might be tempted to think it's still winter. And why not? A fresh blanket of snow covers parts of the East, and the first day of spring is still nearly three weeks away.

But only the most innocent observer gauges seasons by dates and thermometers anymore. For fashion designers and retailers, winter disappeared months ago. So did spring - and summer too, for that matter. On their calendars it's already ``pre-fall,'' a new season invented for the purpose of promoting dark wools and cashmeres before swimsuits have even made a splash in most stores.

The designers' rationale is that upscale customers like to shop in June for clothes they won't need until September. The real reason involves their own bottom line. As an executive for Calvin Klein exulted, ``there's big business to be done'' in the pre-fall market.

Designers are not the only ones hoping to do big business by tinkering with calendars, of course. Last week, nine possible contenders in the 1996 Republican primary race jumped the campaign gun by heading for New Hampshire - a full year before the state's primary.

Watching these prospective candidates test the possibility of a presidential bid, one radio commentator waggishly noted that there were only 366 shopping days left until the New Hampshire primary. Not to be outdone, New York and California, among others, plan to move up their primary dates to compete with the Granite State.

From politicians with an eye on the voting booth (only 614 days until the November 1996 elections) to designers with an eye on the pre-fall fitting room (only 187 days until Labor Day), where will the calendar leapfrogging end? This rush toward the future might be almost comical if it didn't raise a few serious questions, such as:

In stores, how many shoppers can bear to think three seasons ahead when most of us don't even know what we'll be wearing tomorrow?

On the campaign trail, how many politicians risk using up not only their own energy but money and voter interest as well by starting this early? And how many voters can endure the hype of a nearly two-year election cycle without tuning out and wondering who's minding the store in Washington while all these early-bird candidates court voters across the country?

Rearranging the calendar is hardly a new phenomenon. But as the tinkering starts earlier and becomes more aggressive, consumer confusion can only increase. The race to be first can make marketers of all stripes feel victorious, but it can leave the rest of us feeling slightly out-of-sync.

After all, who needs back-to-school promotions that sometimes begin in midsummer, only a few weeks after the school year has finally ended in some communities?

And who needs a six-month Christmas season that begins with mail-order merchants hawking holiday ornaments and cards in summer catalogs? Given their early start, perhaps it's no surprise that retailers begin holding pre-Christmas clearance sales in mid-December.

That's also when newsstands fill with magazines bearing January predates, featuring cover photos of spring flowers and stories about post-holiday diets. Then again, there may be no time to waste - only 51 shopping days between Christmas and Valentine's Day.

It may be too late to turn back all the clocks, preset so many days, so many weeks, so many months ahead. People can probably learn to adjust to life on the fast forward, just as they've learned to accommodate to the time disorientation of jet lag. But it does tax the attention to live in two time zones at once - the now and the next. In a hurried world, a preoccupation with the future leaves no time to contemplate or savor the present.

In the end, even the most ardent futurologist might prefer to take the advice of all the best philosophers by living life to the full in the present.

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