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Ways of Seeing: Timeliness is of personal essence

I recently read an explanation of why he’s chronically late by the director of the film “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan. He says it’s a “gluttony for wanting to keep doing what I am doing and also a lunatic resentment at being expected to do anything.”
That got me thinking about why I stubbornly adhere to my mantra, “Never Be Early.” A friend I often meet for a hike is late because she has trouble leaving the house. I understand that. The closer I get to the door, the more little tasks pop out at me demanding attention. My husband, waiting in the car, asks if I stopped to paint the bathroom ceiling.
I’ve had a lot of practice with timing, having taught in a school in which we moved to bells. Class periods were an exact number of minutes. Arranging activities for 20 some-odd students which could conclude gracefully before the bell was a nightmare. And there were longer stretches of time and larger pieces of work which also had to fit a mandated time frame. It was like one enormous timed test. If I didn’t have high-functioning clock cells when I started my career in education, I did 30 years later when I retired.
There’s a body chemistry component as well. I’m hooked on the rush from gambling whether I’ll hit it right. Can I walk into my dentist’s reception space at exactly 2:20 p.m. for my 2:20 appointment? Heart rate elevated, subtle exhilaration. I get a warm smile from the woman — it’s never a man — at her computer. Relief, I suppose, that I have shown up.
I know people who arrive early enough to drive around the block a few times and then wait in the parked car. What are such people rehearsing? My husband says leave early enough to change a flat tire if I’m driving somewhere. Who does that? He does, so I guess this is normal. Is there a checkbox — never late/often early or never early/sometimes late on Match.com? Is it part of job interviews? The schism can create so much strife.
Never Be Early has roots in my childhood. My father was afraid of being late. We, including my mother, were a bit afraid of him when he thought he’d be late. This meant sitting in the car with mom and my three siblings waiting for him to emerge from the house. Long, boring minutes in the backseat interrupted by squabbles over a window seat, inches of space between us, or who touched whom. If this is what being on time entailed, I wanted none of it.
Retirement meant letting go of much of what defined me and satisfied a craving to feel accomplished. Never arriving early is a way of hanging on to at least an appearance of doing important stuff. But it goes deeper than that. It’s a way of ducking old age. If I can still dash around, fly out of the house at the last minute and still get there on time or a bit late, I’m not old. Not yet.
Recently, the one friend I know who is more attached to never being early and always flirting with being late, for the theater, the flight, the funeral, was diagnosed with a disorder that brought this to a halt. The woman I could not keep up with is now working through sludge, not air, to dress, brush her teeth, climb the stairs.
She is facing the terror of a progressive disease, but rather than letting it wear her down, she’s created ways to continue teaching, traveling, and moving in spite of it. She has cut back on work but not stopped, made new friends in special movement classes, and changed apartments to be closer to family in a flatter part of the city. It feels as though she’s on the other side of something huge the way my sister-in-law seemed when she gave birth a few months before I did. Again, it’s a chance to watch and learn.
Kenneth Lonergan has pledged to himself to correct his stubborn habit of lateness. He’s set his watch 15 minutes fast, and it helps keep him on schedule. I’m going to experiment with that. Not 15, but five minutes fast. This will involve giving up the notion that five minutes late isn’t late. People encourage that, saying, “Oh, you’re not late,” when I apologize. I know I am. In this time of year of new resolve, I’m going to try being a few minutes early while I still can.
Jill Vickers is a native of the Champlain Valley, a retired teacher of literacy, and the founder of a video production company. Special interests include family history, travel, and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and their springer spaniel in Bridport.

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