Interesting Ideas

Better late:

Bad Thing Happen to Prompt People

Bad things happen to prompt people. This is a fact half the world hasn't a clue about, because they're never there early enough to notice.

For those who can't make it on time, here's what it means to be there promptly:

0:00. You arrive and look around. You know you'll be waiting, alone again.

0:02. You lean against a wall and study the people passing. Perhaps this will be that sweet exception, you think: You'll see someone walking up to greet you before more minutes pass.

0:05. You pace. You examine the geometry of the sidewalk or floor or the architectural detail of the buildings in the vicinity. This is a chance to stop for a minute and really take in your environment. You consider your plans for the rest of the day or evening, and for tomorrow, reassuring yourself that you do have better things to do than stand around here.

0:10. You check your watch at five-minute, then at three-minute, intervals. If you don't have a watch, you look for the nearest clock--the search is an excellent way to kill time. You calculate how long it could reasonably take someone to get from there to here.

0:13. You start circling the vicinity, the circles broadening as time passes. You think of how good it would feel to be eating, or to be hearing music, or to just be warm.

0:16. You check places nearby that could possibly be mistaken for the meeting spot. This relieves your self-consciousness about hanging around too long in the same place.

0:22. You try to temper your impatience with concern. You think of exculpatory scenarios. "Maybe they've got stuck with some crisis or been in an accident or something." You know they haven't.

0:25. You plan what you'll do when you've finally given up on them.

0:27. You find a phone and call the laggard's home or last-known location.

0:30. Irritation turns to anger. "I'm tired of getting treated like this, having to waste my own time waiting like this all the time. I'm getting blown off again!"

0:35. You call once more.

0:36. Anger turns to contempt. "How can anyone be so outright inconsiderate? What is it about people that they are incapable of doing what they say?"

0:40. You tell yourself, "Five more minutes and that's it."

0:46. The sluggard shows up. "How can anyone be so obnoxious, so disorganized? It doesn't occur to them that this is insulting?" You don't say that, of course. So you won't appear anal, you modulate your rage into the most minor irritation possible. If they realize you are seething, they might offer an excuse. If they do, you pretend to be understanding.

The chronically late don't know that prompt people have long memories. Fifteen years ago I waited 45 minutes at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City to meet a friend to see Apocalypse Now. I still remember that the explanation was plausible, even reasonable. I remember the waiting better.

The clash between the late and the on-time can be simple coincidence: Some people just don't watch the time; others are planners. One person's natural sloppiness means another waits. Sometimes a bit of teasing creeps into even casual lateness. There is pleasure in needling the vulnerably prompt, showing them the world isn't a clock.

In some cases, though, the relationship between the late and the prompt is pathological. Lateness asserts power. It disrupts. It forces an emotional reaction or other sought-after response. It reveals whether the on-time party is committed enough to the friendship, relationship or deal to be there no matter how late the other person arrives. It nicely undermines the precision with which the prompt have chosen to live, shattering the control that foresight and organization theoretically allow.

By the very effort to follow a rational, agreed-on plan, the prompt person is made helpless. The dawdler seizes control of the schedule and the lives of those governed by it.

On-time individuals make themselves vulnerable by not realizing that the schedule, like the Bible, is owned by everyone--and what it means in any particular case is a matter of individual interpretation.

That quasi-religious aspect comes into play on the prompt side of the pathology as well, as helplessness, resentment and anger load an emotional charge of self-mortification for those who wait.

For some, that self-mortification virtually amounts to saintliness. Being there first establishes their caring, commitment and consideration. It secures their position in the relationship as superior in manners and morals. It makes it clear who is competent at managing their lives and affairs, or so they think. What they don't like to think is that it takes two, at least, to make anyone late.

Put all this together, and promptness isn't worth it. Besides the frustration and the sheer, irritating fact of wasted time, there is the awful baggage of anger and ill will and jockeying for position with people you otherwise like. Years of accumulating bad feelings and thousands of 30-minute waits can finally point you to the logical alternative: to start being late yourself.

I've tried it, and more often than not I'm able to reclaim 5 or 10 minutes, or even a full 20 minutes, by being late. I've finally learned the secret activities to which the naturally late have devoted a lifetime: 20 minutes more of puttering around the house, of browsing, of showering, of last-minute errands--activities that are mysterious to the considerate, not to mention totally unjustifiable. I've lost the frustration and anger, and I'm not so vulnerable to the mind games, whether mine or another's, casual or pathological.

(And when it comes to parties and similar occasions, I'm now able to show up one, two or more hours after the scheduled start time, limiting my exposure to the natural tedium of such events, and feeling no guilt.)

Despite my best efforts, though, I still drift toward getting there on time, or worse, early. I still notice when I'm 10 minutes late and they're 15. I still suffer from the almost-always-unfounded fear that I would make someone else wait by being late myself.

The problem is that I can't help thinking about getting there: about my route, when I would like to arrive, how long the trip will take, where I will wait. The hidden processes of promptness remain at work; the best I can do is direct them at getting me somewhere at 7:15 rather than the appointed 7:00.

Yes, I plan my lateness. I may try to leave myself vulnerable to traffic or other uncontrollable factors that could make me even later than expected, but as long as I'm aware I'm waiting until the last possible moment to leave for an appointment, I am still paying attention, and that's wrong.

Attaining the state of late isn't enough. You have to learn to be sincerely sloppy about it--that's the true spirit of the thing--and that won't be easy. But apathy is the promised land.

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