I first realized that I had a problem with time when I was married to my first husband. As a college student, I don’t remember it being a problem. I moved to California and a year later got married and a year after that had a kid. I’ve never been the kind of woman who takes a long time primping to get out the door, so you’d think that would help me with being on time. But I have a tendency to keep doing whatever I’m doing for as long as I can and I stop to get ready to go and pull myself together mere seconds before I have to walk out the door, and then I leave. Late. Since I am always leaving late, I am always arriving late which leads to arriving late to the next thing and the next. My kids, both of them, have the tendency to be late as well.
When we were married, my ex-husband worked in film. He was never late to film shoots because he always calculated traffic and then gave himself an extra thirty to forty minutes in case traffic was bad, so he was always early. And dependable. Whereas I was always not dependable.
My current husband, who was an engineer when I met him and is now a publisher, and I have been together for twenty-two years and by the time I’m sixty-two, we will have been married one half of my life and by the time I’m ninety, we will have been married two thirds of my life. That length of time is long enough that almost everything that has happened has happened more than once. At that time, there will have been literally thousands of times when he has been on time and I have been late. Every year, I add being on time to my New Year’s resolutions, and every year I imagine myself getting better at it.
I have leaped onto trains and buses, run in my bare feet through airports to catch planes, I have skidded into meetings and lunches and I have skated into job interviews and dinners. I have never missed a plane even once when I woke at five am for a six am flight to DC. We live a forty minute drive to the airport on a good day. The gods have smiled at me.
Being on time is a construct of the 20th century. In orderly countries, trains run on time. In England, Germany and Japan, trains leave precisely on time. In Guatemala, you can wait hours for a bus. If you’re living in Europe and you tell a friend you’ll be by such and such a café around four, and you show up at four twenty, you’re there practically on the dot. When you say four, you mean approximately four. Because you are not on the clock, time is mutable.
But in Hong Kong, if the meeting starts at ten am, you better be there on time or the meeting will start without you, which means that you better be there ahead of time. In the civilized world, being late is a sign of rudeness, something my husband has pointed out to me over and over again.
On vacations, whether we are with the kids or not, we figure out a way to live off the clock as much as possible. To wake when we want, go to sleep when we want, eat when we want. Except for the transportation that takes us where we’re going, we’re on our own time. We don’t have dinner reservations or appointments to go on safaris or tour castles. We simply drift in our own space/time continuum, and that’s what makes the vacation feel relaxing.
The clock rules our lives. When we wake, even on vacation, we guess the time. Everything is framed by time. You exercise twenty minutes a day? That’s not enough time. You eat your food in five minutes? That’s too quick. You need to slow down. You think you can have a great love affair in five minutes a day? You need more time.
At its best, the matter of time is a matter of being present. Being in a great relationship or raising kids well requires time and presence. Slowing down is more important than speeding up, which brings me back to being on time. My relationship with time is that I don’t have enough of it to get done what I need to do so I try to expand time like pulling taffy by doing things till the last minute. If I could, instead, leave early and arrive early, maybe it would feel like time stretched out forever. There I am early at the airport. I have a book. I have an hour. I have time.