On Being Late

If you gave me three words to describe myself, I don’t think timely would be one of them. In fact, if you really pressed me, I might admit that I’ve always rather fancied the White Rabbit as my spirit animal and his chant, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date,” as my marching song. Still, I would never—until recently—admit that I have a problem arriving on time.

Sure, I’m acquainted with that rapid trot to class, the churning in the stomach as you anticipate the disappointed eyes of a professor or a friend, the moment of hesitation before you open the class door: Wouldn’t it be better at this point to just turn around? The relief when someone is later than you are—the intractable theory that as long as you’re not the last one to arrive, you’re still relatively on time.

And I can spin excuses to the point where I start to believe them. That’s the trick of it, of course, because if you believe that’s why you were late this time, then you don’t realize that you’re late all the time. Each late arrival begins to seem like a special case: If only it hadn’t been for that unsorted laundry or notebook lent away to a friend or wild coyote you almost hit on your bicycle (true story!) then you would have been on time. Next time you will be punctual, you think, because there won’t be unmatched socks or Claremont wildlife to get in your way. So, optimistically, I settle down into copying the notes I missed from the first five minutes of class, and the cycle begins anew.

After all, being late is not an action. It is a state of being that perpetuates itself.

Not too long ago, though, two things happened that forced me to recognize my vice. The first came in the form of a Huffington Post article, called “This Is Why You’re Late All the Time (And What to Do About It),” by Laura Schocker. She explored why some people consistently arrive late even though they want to change their habits.

She found that there are several different categories of latecomers, from the adrenaline junkies who need the stress of a deadline, to the producers who over-schedule their days, to the absentminded professors who get distracted by things in their path. Now, this was scary, because I realized I easily fit into all three of those categories—and so do many of the people here at the 5Cs, but somehow they seem to be able to arrive more punctually than me.

This can be explained by a time-perception study Schocker carried out, where she asked people to stop reading once they felt 90 seconds had passed. As she said, “I found that early birds, almost without fail, stopped reading before ninety seconds had passed, while lateniks put their books down well after the ninety second mark.” According to her study, latecomers tend to perceive the passage of time more slowly than prompt people.

While this study definitely struck a nerve, I supposed that since the titular “What to Do About It” part was in parentheses, I could take the advice as rather optional.

Thus, this Saturday, when I arrived at the parking lot slightly winded at 1:10 p.m., I was somewhat devastated to realize that my geology field trip had left without me. At first, I fluctuated between surprise that the trip managed to leave within 10 minutes of the officially designated time and indignation that they’d left me behind. But slowly, the lesson that had been working its way to me for some time hit. Coming late is rude. It makes the assumption that people will wait for you and that your time is more important than theirs. I had come several minutes late to this class for much of the semester, and I’m sure they were simply tired of waiting. Finally, I was experiencing all the frustration and disappointment others had probably felt around me for the last couple months.

So around 1:45 p.m., when I finally managed to drag myself out of the state of utter gloom I’d fallen into, I realized that arriving on time doesn’t mean not arriving late, it means arriving early. Planning to arrive on the hour is the principle of a latecomer. You are allowing yourself to hope that you will just make it before the car door closes. Planning to arrive a minute or two before the appointed time is the rule of the punctual.

And yet, I cringe from the rigidity of timeliness, of worrying over the ticking of a watch’s hands. When I was young, a family friend gave me a slim purple book entitled “Morgan and Me,” no doubt because my name was Morgan and the front cover pictured a unicorn. Just like all kid’s books, this one had a moral, but it was an unconventional one. It tells the story of a girl who was always blowing off spending time with her unicorn to take care of household chores. So clearly, she had her priorities out of order, but after a brief moping spell from Morgan (the unicorn—you didn’t think it could be a girl’s name, did you?) the story concludes with the girl throwing her watch away to canter across daisy fields on Morgan’s back. The moral: Don’t allow time to own you.

I’m not advocating lateness. In fact, if anything, my experience this past weekend and much of this semester has done everything it can to encourage me to adopt a more responsible lifestyle. But I can’t help wishing I that I could toss time into the wind and ride a unicorn into the setting sun, in a world where time holds only the most arbitrary of powers and serendipity reigns.

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