Early January is the hardest time of the year. Take a big sigh of relief 30 days from now, once you"ve made it through the promise of New Year"s Day, the realities of Jan. 2 and the assorted snowstorms, bills and car problems that also come along with the month of January. The name of the month comes from the Middle English word Januarie, which itself is derived from the Latin Januarius, meaning "of Janus." Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways, who is usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. That makes perfect sense. This is a time when you definitely want to look both ways when entering or exiting a room. And since it"s the doorway into a new year, one that"s filled with uncertainty about war, economic instability and an unusually boring NFL playoff season, it"s a good thing to be cautious. "Blasts of January would blow you through and through," Shakespeare wrote, and one person who"ll be feeling the cold air will be former Marion County Sheriff Jack Cottey. He left office Jan. 1 after a brutal final month on the job. Already facing the prospect of losing the cool cars with the sirens and radios, and the spiffy uniform, Cottey found out a few weeks early that he"d already lost his privilege to park anywhere he wanted. When patrolman David Roth had Cottey"s car towed from a no-parking zone, the sheriff called 911 in a pissed-off mood. "You tell that David Roth to hang onto his ass ... until I leave office," Cottey told the scared 911 operator. "Yes sir," he said. Hang onto your ass. That"s good advice at any time, but it"s especially wise when you"re an ex-sheriff with the entire Indianapolis Police Department mad at you. Cottey apologized to everyone involved, but he"s going to look both ways before he parks in a tow zone again. Also presumably hanging onto his ass is Indiana University basketball coach Mike Davis, facing suspension for a very Bob Knight-like outburst during the Dec. 21 game against Kentucky. Here"s a special Mike Davis tip for shrugging off punishment: Continue to insist, repeatedly if necessary, that you"re not Bob Knight. "I embarrassed the [IU basketball] program, but still, am I the first?" Davis asked, not unreasonably, after a recent game. "I"m not the first, and I won"t be the last." January also brings us a three-cent increase in the state gasoline tax to 18 cents a gallon. While the tax stays constant, the price of gas has fluctuated wildly, sometimes as much as 20 cents up or down in a single day. Buying gas has become like playing the stock market or the lottery, where you win or lose based on chance. Should you fill up at $1.29 now or hope it"s $1.22 tomorrow? Or do you wager it all and lose by having to pay $1.45? In an attempt to put a good public-relations face on the whole situation, the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association is placing stickers on gas pumps explaining why gas costs so much. "Nearly the entire pump price of gasoline is determined before it is received by the retailer," the sticker says. The spokesperson for the association told the Associated Press that it"s not the stations" fault that the price changes so much. "It"s not a big conspiracy or anything like that," she said. "We"re just trying to get that out." Of course! It"s a coincidence that 200 gas stations all change their prices at exactly the same time. There"s certainly nothing conspiratorial about that. Raccoons, beware! If you"re a furry animal in Indiana, you do face a murderous conspiracy of hunters and trappers in January. Figures released last week by the state show that fur buyers bought 209,137 pelts last hunting season, up from 114,280 pelts during the 2000-"01 season. That"s more than three sold-out Colts games at the RCA Dome filled with cute furry animals instead of blue-painted, drunken human spectators. The death toll for the last hunting season? Three thousand opossums, 2,700 beavers, 2,600 mink, 2,000 red foxes, 2,000 coyotes and 400 gray foxes, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. More than 54,000 raccoons met an unexpected demise last year at the hands of Hoosier hunters. But since they"re basically rats with bigger tails, they get relatively little sympathy amongst the carnage - and draw surprisingly little cash for their hides. A bullet-ridden 20-pound raccoon corpse goes for only around $10, down from $50 in the late 1970s. Most people agree that it"s a good thing that opossums and raccoons get shot instead of crawling in your chimney or eating your trash, but it is possible to get, well, a little too carried away with your hunting. A recent Muncie Star Press article about Hoosier fur traders described a place where visitors drive 150 miles to watch a trapper peel the skin off a dead animal. The story also contained the following, slightly chilling sentence: "Peeling the skin is an act that resembles pulling a tight-fitting sweater off a person." Can we say ill-phrased metaphor? It"s just one more piece of evidence pointing to one inescapable conclusion: In Indiana in January, you"d better hang onto your ass, like Jack says.