Better late than never (or, Why some people are always late)

illustration of the White Rabbit from Disney's Alice in Wonderland

It’s no secret that I’m not a morning person. I once advised a colleague’s assistant never to book morning meetings with me. “So nothing before 9:30?” she asked. “Better make it 10:30 just to be safe,” I responded. She thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.

I’m also very often running late. Not to everything, but to a lot of things. Most people who know me have learnt to expect that I’ll be late and sometimes even rely on it.

I once read that people who are late value their own time more than other people’s. I was mortified that people might think that of me because the truth is I’ve run late for things all my life. I was known as a dawdler before I was five years old. My family joked that I was born on a “slow planet” where everyone did everything slowly. I’m sure it’s genetic. I don’t know who I got the gene from but there has to be at least one ancestor back there who was also notoriously late to things.

I’ve learnt through observation that the brain of the late-comer is wired very differently to the on-timer. Add not being a morning person to the mix and you have a lethal combination which will kill your chances of being on time to anything, especially if it’s in the first half of the day.

Here are my key findings:

Late-comers are incredibly inept at time management – but only in regards to how long it will take to get somewhere. I’m great at managing my time at work, but absolutely crap at working out when to leave the house in order to be somewhere on time. If it takes half an hour to drive into the city, for example, I’ll leave with exactly half an hour to go. I nearly always forget to add 5-10 minutes to find a parking spot, and another five minutes to walk from there to the meeting spot. Oh and even if I adjust my driving time to account for traffic, I’ll nearly always get it wrong and not leave enough time.

We late-comers also understand time very differently. For on-time folk, there’s early, on time and late. Pretty simple, really. For the late-comers, there are myriad shades of grey, especially where ‘late’ is concerned.

For example, for those of us who elect to start work around 9:30 (notice I said “around” and not “by”), when the majority of people are at work by 9:00, there’s a huge difference between arriving at work at 9:55 as opposed to 10:05, the former being nowhere near as ‘bad’ as the latter. But to the on-time crowd, there is absolutely no difference whatsoever. To them you’re just late. Again. In fact, they consider your 9:30 start time as late, so really, you’re kidding yourself if you think they appreciate the fact you got in before 10:00am.

Oh and late-comers also think that if we arrive somewhere two minutes ahead of schedule – or even one minute, for that matter – that constitutes being ‘early’. But on-time folk consider anything less than 15 minutes ahead of schedule to be ‘on time’. You can’t win with these people.

Notwithstanding the above, late-comers do not understand the concept of being early. It just doesn’t make any sense to us. If you have to be somewhere at a certain time, why on earth would you get there any earlier than you had to? What would that achieve?

Many years ago my family had a standard get-together for lunch at my parents’ place at 1:00pm on a Saturday. It would take me half an hour to drive there. One Saturday it was 12:20 and I found myself with ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for lunch so I decided to replace a lightbulb in my kitchen. As I removed the glass light-fitting it slipped from my fingers and smashed onto the tiles, flinging glass splinters everywhere. By the time I had cleaned it up I was running about 30 minutes late.

The point is, when I told the story to my family they asked me, “Why did you have to find something to do at 12:20? Why couldn’t you just leave early?”

I swear to you the thought never occurred to me. My brain just doesn’t function like that.

Late-comers actually believe that the universe sabotages their chances of being on-time. Or to put it another way, we’re not great at taking responsibility for our lateness. You see, we’re constantly thwarted by events outside our control. The train was late and the next one was cancelled, the driver in front of me did 20 under the speed limit, I got a call I had to take just before leaving the house. You get the picture.

I once temped with a woman named Ann, who on finding out my star-sign said to me, “Oh my – aren’t you dramatic?! And you’re always late – but you’ve always got a thousand excuses because it’s never your fault – oh noooooooo….” As she rolled her eyes, I laughed so hard that I literally fell off my chair and onto the floor.

On-timers really don’t have much time for our excuses. The whole time we’re explaining about the unexpected roadworks (or whatever) they’re thinking, Yes but I managed to get here on time. Why couldn’t you??

Not only do on-time folk resent our excuses, they resent us for not being punished for our perpetual lateness. Surely it can’t be fair, they reason, that they make an effort to be on time while the late-comers just waltz in having kept others waiting and yet still get away with it?

Of course, late-comers are punished. Society runs to the beat of the on-timer’s drum. We’re all measured by that standard and those of us who don’t make the grade are judged accordingly.

It’s for this reason I’m using what I’ve learnt to improve myself. I’m working on my time management ineptitude, and taking responsibility for my lateness. You see it’s never too late to learn something new: in fact, better late than never.

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The Hoarding Gene

When my brother and I were teenagers, if our mum found our rooms untidy she would use only one threat to get us to tidy up.

“If you don’t clean this mess up by the time [insert arbitrary deadline here], I am going to throw all this stuff out! All of it! In the rubbish!

My mum does not like mess. She also does not like to hold onto things she no longer needs.

My dad on the other hand, was a hoarder. Dad liked to hold onto everything that ever passed through his hands, or so it seemed when we cleaned out his garage (because in the last decade or so it was definitely his garage and no one else’s) a year after he passed away.
Inside of a garage filled with various objects and rubbishMy brother, his brother-in-law and I took just three and a half hours to clean out what we’d imagined would take three days. We thought we’d be deliberating on each item: Do we need this? Does anyone want to keep it? Can we donate it? Or is it just junk?

As it turns out, there was very little to deliberate on. Save for the comprehensive collection of tools that Dad had amassed, one quick glance around the garage revealed that most of its contents was rubbish.

As we systematically went through it and turfed things out, the men repeatedly asked, “Why would you keep this?” and I would always reply, laughing, “Just in case!” and “You never know!”

Dad was the ultimate re-user, recycler and re-purposer of things so he saw the potential in all objects to become something else. He had both an enormous imagination and a sense of preparedness that would’ve made any scout jealous.

In one enormous box we found about 20 hubcaps from different cars. Rubbish, we decided, and out they all went.

About a month later my mum lost one of the hubcaps on her car. We all saw the irony and could just hear Dad laughing at us from the other side. “See?!” he’d be saying, “What did I tell you?!”

A few of the items in the garage reflected Dad’s acute sentimentality. Some telephones from the 70s and 80s from when he worked in telecommunications, our first portable radio cassette player and, most surprisingly of all, the suitcases that he and Mum brought over from Greece when they first emigrated to Australia in the mid 1960s. They’d been securely wrapped in plastic and were still in good condition.
190s radio casette playertwo 1960s suitcasesInside one of them was a plate with a photo of my parents from around the same time, which had become smoke damaged when we’d had a house fire. Mum had thrown it out with all the other smoke damaged items. To our surprise, Dad had pulled it out of the rubbish and kept it.

If you read the post on my collections you won’t be surprised to hear that I take after my dad in the sentimentality and hoarding stakes. I definitely have the hoarding gene within me and I often think of how dad ended up (he didn’t always have a garage full of junk) and caution myself with “there but for the grace of God go I”.

But I also take after my mum, and definitely have the purging gene in me, too. I find purging really cathartic. Some people, when they find that their cupboards are full and spare rooms overflowing, buy bigger houses or more storage. Not me. When the house is full I realise I’m overdue for a good clean out and get to it. I may hold onto things for a long time but then I’ll decide to clean out a cupboard or a whole room and – whoosh! – it’s all gone. Just like that.

There are pros and cons with each gene. I’ve accidentally held on to some odd little gems that I consider priceless, such as a single copy of the Weird Mysteries comic book series from the 70s. On the other hand, my purging zeal has led to some colossal mistakes being made, such as the time I donated my mint condition 70s Lego sets to charity and then found out they were worth a fortune.
Cover of Weird Mysteries comic book showing a doctor unable to help a patient and a woman pointing to the devilIf you’ve seen the TV show Hoarders you’ll know that serious hoarding always has an emotional basis. The inability to let something go emotionally and the quest to control one’s life in some way manifest in the extreme collection of everything from household goods to household rubbish, to the point where homes and backyards are filled wall to wall and chest high with utter, and in some cases truly bizarre, crap.

But it’s a fine line. In a way, collecting is socially acceptable and sanctioned hoarding. I read recently of a woman who has a shed that holds 13,000 teaspoons. An impressive collection, or a case of organised and narrowly focussed hoarding?

Perhaps we just don’t relate to what hoarders collect because it doesn’t make sense to us in the way a collection of teaspoons might, though for militant purgers like my mum, there is as little sense in a shed with 13,000 teaspoons as there is in my dad’s garage of crap.

Let’s face it, if hoarding is about holding on and purging is about letting go, we’re all hoarders in comparison to say, Buddhist monks, who let go of everything on their path to enlightenment. We could all look around our homes, I’m sure, and think about what meaning we gain from our possessions and what emotions lie behind our inability to let go of some things.

I can see myself giving away a lot of my things and living a very minimalist if not totally ascetic lifestyle when I’m older. Until I get to that point, I’ll continue to balance my two genetic dispositions to hoard and purge. And meanwhile, I’m holding onto that burnt out plate. Not quite ready to let it go.
photo of man and woman from 1960s on a plate that has had smoke damage