The lamentation of being late

Posted 5/17/19

Hurry up and read this column, please, because I’m late.

Actually, if what I heard many years ago about being late is true — and I believe it to be — then by the time you’ve gotten this …

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The lamentation of being late

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Hurry up and read this column, please, because I’m late.

Actually, if what I heard many years ago about being late is true — and I believe it to be — then by the time you’ve gotten this far, to this sentence, I’m not late after all.

Here’s why: about 30 years ago, I was sitting in a conference room with a group of probably 20 people on day two of a pretty intense series of meetings in Greensboro. Our 9 a.m. session had begun 10 minutes prior. A tardy participant stumbled in, breathless, mumbling apologies about arriving past the appointed hour.

“You’re not late until you arrive,” our wise facilitator said forgivingly. “And then you’re only late for a minute. Once you’re here, you’re here.”

I’ve held on to that sentiment since: if you’re late, you’re only late for a minute.

Too often, though, I only apply that to myself because I’m not a perfect practitioner of the art of punctuality. Sure, I like it, but I’m in that netherworld that probably most of us live when it comes to being late. Among my list of peeves, phobias and obsessions, punctuality occupies a unique place. I love getting there early, but I don’t subscribe to the “five minutes early is 10 minutes late” mindset. And while I agree with the man who said that “the problem with being punctual is there’s nobody there to appreciate it,” I can be sorely impatient when others run tardy.

We have friends (names withheld to protect our relationship) whom we love dearly and revel spending time with. When it comes to group gatherings (OK, family gatherings — a bit of a giveaway there?), though, they’re always an hour late. And they make no apologies. It’s just the way things are. We all know that if the event starts at 1 p.m., we have to tell them it starts at noon. They’ll roll in around 1:10 without fail.

It used to drive me crazy, but anyone who’s raised three children with the help of a wife who owns 1) hair and 2) a curling iron is forced to learn about patience. There was a time I’d sit in the car in the driveway by myself (and maybe one of the kids), all revved up and ready to go, steaming over the fact that, yet again, we were going to be late. (I’m not an idiot: it finally dawned on me that if I did more to help the kids get ready, and we’d be on time more often. Happy wife = happy life.)

Today, my kids have grown up mostly punctual and the days of steaming are over — now I just sit in the car and text Lee Ann every 17 seconds, asking: “Are you close?”

OK, not true, but I still have a lot to learn. Maybe most of us do. I’d venture to guess that we each view punctuality from the lens of our experience with it and our concept of time. A Wall Street Journal story I read pointed out the fact that “the planning fallacy,” which makes people routinely misjudge how long it takes to do certain tasks, is partly to blame for tardiness. The chronically tardy, one study showed, act as if “just a minute” were 77 seconds. Sure, 17 extra seconds may not seem like a lot, but if you’re running late, that 28 percent adds up.

People who are fine with being late, I think, just lack the emotional imprinting that being late can have. My life-changing “late” experience came one summer during my high school years. We lived in Kansas but my sister Belinda and I were spending the summer in North Carolina. Belinda was flying to New York to begin a trip to Italy (my grandfather either took or sent each of us grandkids on a trip out of the country when we were young), and dad had us halfway to the airport when Belinda realized she’d grabbed her Kansas airline tickets, not her New York tickets. In an instant, we went from being ahead of schedule to way behind, and now there was a chance she’d miss her connecting flight to Italy. (Remember, this is back in the day before electronic boarding passes.)

Dad gassed it back home and frantically called the travel agent while Belinda found the right tickets, and we sped back to the airport. We made it with about three minutes to spare. I’ll never forget the lone Highway Patrolman we passed — he shook his finger at dad as we sped by, but he didn’t stop us. He probably knew.

We drove home at about 40 mph.

We got away with it, but maybe there’s some kind of weird karma when it comes to time and punctuality and cheating time. Belinda had a great trip, but after we picked her up at the airport the night of her arrival back in the USA, the bizarre happened: we rolled into Sanford and dad was driving the speed limit downtown and got stopped. And ticketed.

The crime? Driving with his “brights” on in the city limits.

So I’m occasionally, but not often, late. But I promise one thing: if we’re going somewhere requiring tickets, I’ll ask you a dozen times if you have them before we get in the car.


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