Three women walk into a bar.
No, wait. One woman walks into a bar. Looks at her watch. Frowns. Waits. Waits some more. Because this woman is me and my 7pm is everyone else's 7.15pm. Or 7.30pm. Once, it was someone else's 8pm and they were too drunk to eat a three-course dinner that featured goat's cheese bruschetta (10 minutes) and a slow-cooked lamb shoulder (270 minutes).
I have zero sense of direction and a limited sense of appropriateness, but I am always, always, on time. They say you get the relationship you deserve. Once, after waiting 15 minutes for an airport pick-up, I called to see where my ride was. "I was just waiting for you to text to say you'd landed," he said, from our home, 28-minutes-depending-on-the-traffic away.
He didn't hear me scream. When people are late, I scream at them on the inside. On the inside, I am incomprehensible with seething, indignant rage and splutter. On the outside, I smile and say: "No problem, it'll give me a chance to catch up on my emails."
I actually lied about looking at my watch. I don't have one. I keep an eye on the time via my phone, the lower right-hand corner of my computer and bus stop arrival boards. When I enter a room, one of the first things I do is look for a clock. It just makes me feel better knowing exactly where I am at any given moment in the day.
One of my latest (and I don't mean newest) friends does wear a watch. It's a Breitling. Fashion, as a guilt statement. It allows her to know, constantly, exactly how late she is. And she does, because she always takes the time (30-40 seconds depending on word count) to tell me she's running late. "I try to do too much," she explains. "And I always underestimate how long everything will take." She is 41. She has lived in Auckland her entire life, minus an obligatory OE in the south of France. (Fact: in France, the further south you go the more laissez-faire they are about lateness.) Anyway, my point is that by now you'd think she would have figured out how long it takes to drive from her place to any other place.
Because late is rude. Late says you think your time is more important than my time, or the time of 10 other people who have also bothered to turn up (on time) for a 10am. When you swish in with your take-out coffee and laughing apology, you should know that some people in the room actually hate you at that precise moment (10.07am). There's a French (the irony!) proverb that works quite well here: The time you keep someone waiting is when they reflect on your shortcomings.
My late (as in alive, but still seven minutes away) friends prefer to quote Oscar Wilde, who once said punctuality was the thief of time. Or Marilyn Monroe: "I've tried to change my ways but the things that make me late are too strong, too pleasing."
This makes no sense to me. Driving in ever-distressing circles looking for a carpark is surely not as pleasing as getting somewhere in time for an extra glass of wine and all the complimentary nuts?
I asked my friend Sarah Daniell* when she first realised she could get away with being unspeakably rude. (*In media, an asterisk usually indicates a fake name. This is not the case today. It serves her right).
Q: Why are you always late?
A: I wouldn't say I'm a chronically tardy person. There are certain things I am absolutely unequivocal on. You can never be late for the theatre, the airport and you can never be late paying your tax. Well, you can be, but you pay for it. But there is a window of acceptable lateness when you are dealing with good friends.
Q: How long is that window?
A: Half an hour - unless you know, unforeseen circumstances. I embrace lateness. It's perhaps connected to my army childhood upbringing. There was such an expectation. You were basically a servant to punctuality, which I just find really, kind of ...
Q: You're blaming your parents?
A: I'm blaming my parents. Absolutely. For everything.
Q: How do your friends cope with your timekeeping?
A: Some are fine because they tend to be a little bit late themselves. But, okay, for instance, one friend occupies the moral high ground to such a degree it's almost tempting to make sure you're deliberately late, even if it's just five or 10 minutes.
Q: That's mean!
A: We joke about it, but I mean, she's quite obsessive. Her compulsive behaviour throws me into disarray. I did a little bit of research on this, and I think it's a cultural thing as well. Punctuality belongs to a time in the white, Western world where you have the time, the financial wherewithal, to revere punctuality as being a mark of something - because you frankly have nothing else taxing your time. There are far more important things to get upset about, than being a little late.
Q: I am not obsessive!
And so on. It turns out Sarah** (**still her real name) has categories of acceptable lateness:
Dinner parties: 10-15 minutes.
Actual parties: Whenever the hell you want.
"The thing is," she tells me gently, "You have to appreciate that also, with the lives we live now, there just isn't the room that we used to have. If you're imposing a whole lot of seriously strict notions of punctuality, then you're just making it difficult for people really."
My boyfriend concurs. A couple of summers ago we spent a month in Spain. Among the holiday snaps (culled to an easy 23 minutes' viewing) there is one photograph that makes him laugh like a drain. It's taken at a train station in Granada. You can see the clock on the platform. AND NOTHING AND NOBODY ELSE. Because we were an hour early. I can confirm that, at the time, he did not laugh like a drain. At the time, he put his headphones on and read a book at the far, far, far end of that empty platform. I think he was lucky we got there in time for him to have his choice of seats.
I have another friend, Anna* (*not her real name, because she has an important job) who cannot abide lateness. "It speaks to me of a disorganised mind."
When she is booking a doctor's appointment she phones to find out when the doctor is taking a lunch break and makes an a time immediately after that. "And if they're not bloody on time, there's trouble." Latecomers should be barred from entering theatres, she says. Meetings should start minus those who aren't there. And if somebody invites Anna for dinner between 7pm and 7.30pm, she will just look at them and say, "Which one?" We have been friends for 28 (and counting) glorious years.
Helen Garner* (*real name, because, credibility) runs time management courses for the New Zealand Employers and Manufacturers Association. She says when it comes to time management, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
"I see quite a disconnect - people don't know how to prioritise their time and work out what's important when they're just busy being busy. We call it a "minion day", like those workers in the movie: Get up, survive, go to bed, repeat. And that's the life we seem to live these days. We're bombarded with information and competing priorities."
"Slow yourself down to speed up. We go home with a million and one stories about this person that annoyed us or this thing that didn't go right and we've lost the art of simple things like goal-setting and gaining a sense of achievement about what we do."
Garner says lateness is a habit, and habits can be broken. "I know that from my own experience, because I was perpetually late. I used to be absolutely shocking. I didn't realise the effect it was having on others and their perception of me. They actually saw me as being less than I was, because of what they perceived to be tardiness."
She changed her ways, she says, by shifting her focus. She stopped looking at what time a meeting started, and instead worked out how long it would take, worst-case scenario, to get there. And then she added an extra five minutes, just to be safe.
I ran this theory past my two tardy friends who, it turns out, were not born yesterday.
"I can't quite figure out how it would really work," said one. "It's like when people say they've set their watch five minutes fast. I've tried that and it doesn't make me any more punctual. I just think, 'Well I've got five minutes up my sleeve, so on the way I'll return those library books.'"
And the other? "I have that system with my car clock and also on my phone. But you know you are playing little tricks on yourself. so you just think, 'Oh, cool, I can pluck my eyebrows after all.' Besides, the whole point is relaxing, not creating little hurdles for yourself. Embrace the lateness!"
I smiled. And checked my emails.