A few days ago, while my wife and I were staying in a Lake Michigan beach community, my 34-year-old son came for a visit. He had a two-hour drive and told me he would arrive at about 11 a.m. Allowing for the vagaries of road construction and traffic delays, I wasn't counting on it. I was on the porch when he pulled in. My watch read 10:59 a.m.
I should have expected it. In this family, "late" is a four-letter word. Of my three offspring, I can't remember an occasion when, as adults, they have shown up late or kept me waiting for any appreciable time. They are far more likely to arrive early.
Several years ago, my daughter went out with an otherwise fine young man who appeared half an hour late for a second date -- at which point he was given to understand the gravity of his error. He adapted well enough to her expectations that they eventually got married. He was at the venue with time to spare.
In his new regard for punctuality, he was ahead of a trend. A recent article in The New York Times bore the headline "Fashionably Late Fades Out," noting a change that it attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic. "When videoconferencing became the norm for many office workers nationwide, people who had previously struggled with being on time found themselves no longer held up by commutes or workplace gossip sessions," wrote Katherine Rosman.
Excuses are harder to come by these days. Linda Ong, head of a Los Angeles consulting firm, told the Times, "There has been less tolerance for lateness because there is expectation that you have more control over your time and so you should be on time." One thing more annoying than a Zoom meeting is waiting for a Zoom meeting to start.
I like to think the kids who grew up in my household learned from my example. With a lengthy daily commute and a busy family life, I was strict -- well, perhaps obsessive -- about sticking to a schedule. Maybe I inherited this trait from my mother, who regards it as a sin to let 6 p.m. pass without a glass of wine.
Punctuality is a modest virtue that may not get you into heaven. But it has some value in my profession. Newspaper journalism runs on deadlines, and it waits for no one. My submissions may be good or bad, but trust me, editors would rather receive an inferior piece than not receive a superior one.
Granted, this compulsion is not endearing to anyone who values spontaneity above all. It could be said to make me the eternal unpaid servant of the clock. Any of us devoted to being punctual is haunted by fears that don't afflict people who treat time as something that waits on them.
This group includes some of our presidents. Joe Biden, not one to abbreviate any rope line or conversation, invariably runs late, so his aides set their watches to "Biden Standard Time." The rarest events in Bill Clinton's White House were meetings that began on schedule. Donald Trump was notably tardy on important things, such as calling off insurrectionists and conceding the 2020 election.
Maybe they all got elected because so many Americans share their tardy ways. Such carefree souls enjoy a mental freedom that some of us will never know. They can arrive 30 minutes after the appointed time -- or an hour, or more -- without regretting, or possibly even noticing, that others have been inconvenienced.
People like me, on the other hand, are burdened by the nagging feeling that there is no such thing as being on time. If I'm not early, I'm late.
My wife, fortunately, shares this attitude. If we have a flight at 2 p.m., we will normally agree to get to the airport by 1, which means leaving the house no later than 12:15. But once we start fretting over possible highway congestion, parking problems and security lines, we are prone to repeatedly move up our time of departure until we set out at sunrise, wondering if we tarried too long.
These days, though, chronic latecomers are finding themselves less likely to be accommodated. If they have to get used to living in a punctual world, I suggest they keep in mind Yogi Berra's observation: "It gets late early out here."
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