FOR MOST OF the year, the Jensen family of Timonium runs with the crisp efficiency of an MVA office at lunchtime. Leadership is fractious (the CEO is little more than a figurehead openly mocked by his underlings while the better half is widely seen as, well, the better half). The younger members would doubtless stage a coup if they were not engulfed in a conflict over that most burning of social questions, whose monsters rule, Pokemon's or Yu-Gi-Oh's? But there is a time each year when the otherwise dysfunctional family unit absolutely purrs with productivity. When all, from youngest to oldest, are united by purpose, motivated, willing and cooperative. We speak, of course, of that magical interlude when the family packs up for summer vacation.
We have heard tell that there are households that do not require a month of intensive, round-the-clock effort to prepare for a one-week vacation. Frankly, the Jensens have always assumed this chestnut was some old vacationer's fantasy - like clean gas station restrooms or tasty decaffeinated coffee. If only we lived in a world where such things were possible. Try as we might, we cannot seem to squeeze the packing process to less than four weeks. And that doesn't count all the time devoted to making hotel reservations, ordering maps from the automobile service, checking global weather patterns and having the minivan lubricated and serviced. That basic stuff was done months ago.
Please don't misunderstand. We are not obsessive organizers. Ha, if only that were true. Our children's unkempt rooms would not be classified as "hot spots" by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the basement storage room could be traversed in a single day. But for some reason, setting out for the beach or mountains requires the kind of approach the Allies took at Normandy, but with fewer landing craft and less heavy munitions. One doesn't want to get caught without a variety of paperback novels, blankets and towels, inflatable gear, beverage dispensers, radio, folding chairs, umbrella, sand toys and flip-flops.
How elaborate does this ritual get? We pack four levels of sunblock (SPF 2 million for those moments when a stroll on the sun's surface sounds nice), two kinds of bug spray (the children prefer the one that induces fewer seizures) and a dozen swim goggles (sorry, this has no explanation except they seem to be reproducing on their own). There is the usual survival gear: flashlights, batteries, first aid, air compressor, fresh water, Rite Aid's entire flu and cold remedy inventory, etc. But there are also items of questionable value. Such as a silicone spatula and a whisk. Are we likely to need them? Not necessarily, but how much fun can you have on vacation haunted by their absence?
The point is, summer vacation is too precious a family experience to be taken lightly. Part of the fun is anticipation. And nothing puts one's mind on an upcoming getaway quite like organizing the car's CD collection or a trip to the public library for books on tape. The children each pack a bag on their own, of course. It's not uncommon to wake up on a first day away from home and witness a 5-year-old dancing around in the feather boa she considered far more essential than say, a toothbrush. Who says we can't be spontaneous?
All good things come to an end, so at some moment we'll actually do the traveling and sightseeing part and then come home. That's when our once-organized inventory will sit around for weeks before we even consider returning it to a proper shelf or drawer. The family unit will regress to its more contentious behaviors. And, when time permits, we will dream of that special month-to-six-weeks next year when we get to pack again.