Thursday, March 19, 2015

Punctuality Punch

I will apologize in advance if this post offends you. I hope not. I’m writing it because I’ve lived on both sides of this issue so I’m preaching to myself here. I have no particular individual in my mind other than myself. Feel free to add your perspective in the comments or on my Facebook page.

I don’t remember if I heard it, read it, or saw it in one of those random Facebook pictures. It struck me funny.

“Better to arrive late than to arrive ugly.”

I may or may not have re-shared it. It sure got a laugh in Cave Creek at the pottery shop when I said it to my husband as a quote that should be on a plaque and a couple women in the store overheard me. They laughed uproariously.

But is it true?

On a favorite blogger’s recent post I read something that sounds like it. She’s just had a baby. Her fourth. A bit of a “Surprise!” baby, but she was eager and ready and happy and fully immersed in the new mothering of her little one, but wrote: 
“Dashing into the shower in the early morning, determined to get dressed, put on make-up, brush my hair. I’m my father’s daughter: I believe in the small dignities to keep life steady in the midst of change and chaos. I hear his voice in my head, look good and feel good. So I make beds, I put clean clothes on everyone in my care, I empty the dishwasher, we eat at the table. Normal structures, normal routines, all around an extraordinary newness. It’s true, I do feel better but now there’s a houseful of people who all feel better when I feel better.”
Hold that thought while we go back to the triggering quote. Is it truly “better to arrive late than to arrive ugly”? Will the people to whom I’m arriving feel better because I feel good about how I look? Is that the right measure?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s an unfair question.

It’s a false dichotomy, only two choices. The question assumes you must pick one thing out of two bad options, when there are actually many more options available. Let’s break it down a little further: The question assumes that if I arrive on time, I will arrive unkempt. Or that I am ugly unless I arrive late? Or that to truly do what is necessary to make myself presentable, I must take so much time that I cannot possibly start it soon enough to finish promptly and arrive punctually.

I’m sure you and I both have seen many beautiful people arrive on time and behave quite graciously, so this isn’t about them. Let me just pick this funny little quote apart. I’m going to seek names for what it may be hiding. Is it a procrastinator’s excuse for tardiness? An insecure person’s defense for being disrespectful of other people’s time? A comedian’s means to a backhanded insult? Or just a sarcastic joke which I’m totally over-thinking?

A good friend of mine asks a pointed question when we hear, read or say something which is initially funny or self deprecating that eventually doesn’t sit quite right when you think about it or give it a sober second glance.

She asks, “What’s the lie in that?”

Is there a lie in the phrase, “Better to arrive late than ugly”?

Promptness and punctuality were emphasized from day one of elementary school. We were graded on it. Businesses emphasize honoring their open/close times and expect employees to be present and engaged in productive work during their assigned work hours. Social etiquette refers to arriving “fashionably late” as being no more than 8 minutes past the invitation time but not arriving too early ahead of the specified start. Since social settings are voluntary, do we give tacit approval to late arrival? If I were meeting the president or the queen, would I think it’s better to arrive late for any reason?

So here’s the lie. Neither option is better.

Truth is, arriving late is ugly. I know there are occasional times when circumstances cause unavoidable delay. But there was a point in my life where I arrived late all the time. Even if I had committed to an event or a rehearsal, I would often arrive late. I even wrote an essay on it, trying to understand myself and this behavior I did not condone, condemning myself in every possible way for not being able to move my consistent tardiness into dependable punctuality.

I discussed the hypothesis that to arrive consistently late might be done out of disrespect. I used terms like arrogant and inconsiderate. Or perhaps a passive-aggressive act to exert power by one who felt an obligation to attend an event but doesn’t really want to be there. Tardiness can give the self-centered impression that what I am doing now is more important or more interesting than what you want to do at your start time. Or perhaps a narcissist likes arriving late and having everyone notice me when I get there. Even bad attention is better than no attention, right?


If we give the tardies the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they just attract roadblocks. I recently decided to attend my nephew’s band concert in an unfamiliar city. The GPS said ETA was 12 minutes, but that didn’t take into consideration it was rush hour and the GPS said to go north instead of south and the traffic in both directions was at a standstill. Exiting on a side road, we pulled over and it took a few minutes to reassess an alternate route that didn’t include the freeway. We were fine. Calm. Not worried because we still had lots of time, so we stopped for coffee at McDonalds. The clerk said they were brewing a fresh pot and it would be three minutes – no problem, we went to the washroom and returned, waiting while they served the two people now in line.

You know this isn’t going to turn out well, already, don’t you?

The second person was ordering for an entire basketball team, apparently, then didn’t have quite the right amount and had to make alterations to the order. When we finally stepped up to get our coffee order processed (we didn’t use the drive thru because we did need to use the facilities) and while she was taking our simple “two large black coffees” order, the clerk stopped and answered an interruption from the previous woman, then a second question from another patron who wanted more dipping sauce for his chicken fingers and we listened to the entire policy explanation as to why they were going to charge him $.16 for each one in addition to what’s given with his order and their warning to him about not being verbally profane or abusive with his language. Once our coffee finally arrived and we got back into our vehicle to continue our journey, it was a full fifteen minutes we hadn’t calculated into our transit time.

Then in the next block, after we exited McDonalds, a train is stopped across the road. Dead stopped. No movement at all. With a police vehicle already blocking access with lights flashing (on both sides of the train), I make the quick assumption that it is stalled for an indefinite period of time and we proceed with a quick recalculation again on the GPS for a second detour.

The address he gave was for the main office of the college campus where the concert was taking place, and as we arrived, we get a phone message from my brother with more detailed instructions as to how to find the concert hall, a full two miles further from the main office. All the while, I had been texting my brother about our ETA, updating him, figuring out how to meet for getting the concert tickets, which he eventually left at Will-Call so he could sit down as the concert was already starting.

We arrived late and were seated between songs as my nephew’s band began playing the last of their set. They were terrific. Small consolation, the following two bands were terrific as well and we got to go out for coffee with the family afterwards. But we were late. Oh, so late, for such very good reasons that were not at all our fault.

These are not the kind of tardy arrival incidents I am discussing in this post, but it was a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” kind of a story, don’t you think?

Sigh. Even explaining why we were late took me on a long rabbit trail that has delayed my next paragraph.

Yes, even if I wanted to be at an event, I would still sometimes be late. Sometimes just because I couldn’t get my act together or took too long or didn’t leave soon enough. Sometimes, they couldn’t start without me. They still loved me and it made it easier when I could explain all the ridiculous and unexpected, unavoidable reasons for delays outside my control, but when it was due to my own negligence or impertinence, I made it just a smidge harder (and believe me, I am deeply grateful for the true friends who heaped forgiveness on this and many other flaws).

How did I eventually change? I learned from personal experience - when I’ve been on the receiving end: leading a rehearsal that requires me repeating instructions for the latecomers (one of the joys of working with volunteers) or hosting a dinner party that required closely timed guest arrival with placing the success or fail entrée in front of them.

If I arrive late to the theatre for a live show or concert, I’m not allowed in until a suitable break between acts or songs. If I arrive late for an airline flight, I miss it. We are penalized. What’s a person to do when someone arrives late to a dinner party or a rehearsal? Starting without them may drive the point home to them, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference for chronic latecomers.

My father wanted one of my brothers to be more punctual. So my father asked, “If we were to take a hymnal with us from every church we sing in, would that be okay?” My brother says, “Of course not, it would be like stealing.” My father’s point: “And when you take five minutes or more of our time while we wait for you to arrive, you are stealing our time. Nine of us waited five minutes for you, that’s 45 minutes you have stolen. It is time that is not yours to take.”

Some of the things I did to overcome my own chronic tardiness was related to realizing how I was impacting my relationships with those I cared about. I had a choir member ream me out for “expecting more of the choir than you expect of yourself.” She was right. I didn’t want to be kept waiting but there were times I as the director had kept them waiting.

Some practical things I learned:
  • allow extra time
  • leave earlier
  • start getting ready earlier
  • shorten the to-do list
  • eliminate all but the most essential tasks
  • set aside perfectionism
  • get used to saying: "That's good enough"
  • stop being overly optimistic about how long something will take
  • build in a buffer in case something happens along the way
  • leave when planned
  • discipline myself to NOT multi-task

I know all this. You know all this. But still, I push it. I’m no longer a chronic tardy, but sometimes I still arrive late. I see others do the same. Why?

Because I don’t want to have to be the one waiting on the latecomers. What a lame reason. Seriously? That’s a whole ‘nother blog post all on its own.

Back to the blogger’s paragraph. She felt looking good and keeping routines for her family (even in the face of being the mom of a brand new baby) would help her whole family feel better. She took the responsibility to keep routine and beauty and tidiness in the middle of all that change and upheaval. She was choosing beauty over ugly. Peace over chaos. Punctuality over procrastination. But later in her blog, she confessed, “the laundry will never be done” so we know she isn’t one of those uptight perfectionists, nor is she blowing smoke, creating a false image of how organized she is. She simply wants to help her family feel as normal and safe as possible as they integrate a new little one into their family.

I find from experience that late arrivers (including myself) begin to feel like unsafe people. I can’t count on them. Well, I can count on them to be consistently late. They signify by their repeated tardiness that they are not going to respect another’s time.

In the world of those who follow Christ, it doesn’t seem very loving. But then again, neither does my forensic dissection of the issue. I’m preaching at myself here. I’m just a writer trying to figure out how to live in this world in a way that will help others feel safe around me. 

I want to be a woman of my word. I want to be able to trust myself and be confident that I will honor time commitments of others and help them succeed by being prompt. I want to be respectful of others, honor their time, be a good steward of this one precious life. Help the entire production or choir or dinner party look better and feel better because no one is worrying about when the last person will finally arrive and things can get started.

It’s ugly to arrive late.

I want to redeem the time, arrive calm and collected so that I (and all the others with whom I am in community) will look and feel better. I want to make room for time, for others, for sanity. To maintain small dignities to keep life steady in the midst of change and chaos.

There’s no present like the time.

Photo Credit: 2354469, Standard License

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