I always hated lateness.
I would wake up nervous that I would be late to kindergarten. I admonished my parents if I was only 10 minutes early to swim practice, because how could they not know that it takes 15–20 minutes to walk into the swimming pool lobby and get my bearings, socialize for a few minutes, then change into my suit (no fewer than three minutes), then get on deck with five minutes or so to spare before I had to jump into the water?
In high school, walking through my ginormous campus (the largest high school by square footage in the United States, look it up) drove fear into my heart — walking from one of the four major wings to the other, from English class to lunch, could take up to five minutes (or even six). Lord knows how that would go down — the passing period was only five minutes! Talk about tight margins.
The school was so big that there was a complex bell system in place to give you ample warning about how you were about to be late: one bell signaled the end of the class period, a second bell (with a different tone) was rung a minute before the passing period was over (so, four minutes into the five-minute passing period), and then a third bell rang when the next class began. The first and third bells were the hard boundaries, and the second bell was the warning one. Are you confused? Stressed? Imagine how I felt!
That second bell was terrifying to hear if you had dawdled and found yourself more than 10 yards from your next destination — luckily I never dawdled. I walked quickly and briskly, clutching my bright orange iPod Nano that would play me the calming sounds of Teenage Dream by Katy Perry as I hustled and bustled between classes. In second grade, Ms. Edens remarked that I was bound to be a doctor one day, likely in the ER, by virtue of how fast I walked — and with such determination to get from point A to point B in a timely, effective manner. (Do I sound fun?)
I hated lateness so much because I was obsessed with being Good™ because if I was a Good Little Boy™ and got to things on time and did well in school and tried very hard at swimming, nobody would notice that in high school I was struggling socially, that my boat shoes and khaki shorts did not suit me, that I was pretty miserably covering up the fact that I was gay (and, past that, had no idea who I was).
Being on time meant being early, and that meant that I would stand out less, that I was smack-dab in the center of the bell curve of being a regular high school boy, normally distributed and all. Time management was one of the only things I felt like I could control growing up, so I clung to it for dear life.
When I got to college, I had already come out, and while I no longer needed to play the Good Little Boy ™, my dysfunctional (or perhaps hyper-functional) relationship with time followed me.
Instead of being frustrated with my parents for dropping me off late (AKA not early enough) to swim practice, I got annoyed at professors for starting class late to wait for stragglers to get to the lecture hall. I’d have plans to meet friends at the dining hall at around 6 for dinner, and when I got there at 5:53 and nobody arrived until 6:10, I’d have to walk around the lobby of the student center to avoid what I had believed to be the ultimate embarrassment: sitting alone for a meal. Silly? Yes. But I didn’t have time to question why I had such silly judgments about social behavior — I was too busy trying to get places early and getting mad over other people being late.
Speaking of silly, there is something so profoundly preposterous about a chronically early and anxious person deciding to move to New York City after college. My therapist in 2019 chuckled at me when I told her about how anxious I was, how everything was stressful and I didn’t know how to handle it. “Karl, you’re a smart guy — why are you, as a self-identified anxious person, living in New York and working in public relations?” she’d ask with a laugh. *I* was not laughing — I was there for therapy! I wouldn’t have a good answer, though, mostly due to the brain fog (more fog than can be found in the entire Bay Area) from staying up until 2 am every night watching TV and then rolling into her apartment for our appointment at 7:55 am (five minutes early).
But nonetheless, I was committed to being on time — early, in fact — to everything. I showed up to my PR job at 8:20 when we weren’t really supposed to be there until 9; I appeared six to eight minutes early to first dates (where I’d sit and sweat until they arrived on time); I got to my friend’s place an hour early before we’d get ready for three more hours until we even thought about going out to dance.
My earliness became a ritual, and everyone else’s lateness simply felt like a personal affront. And nothing was more of a pet peeve than friends being late to dinner reservations.
When you live in a big city, dinner reservations are supposed to be fun — here you are in the big fuckin’ city! C’mon, silly geese! Let’s sit down and chow! This is where the magic happens, baby!
Right. All I knew, though, was that our reservation (which I secured over Resy because I was too anxious to call the restaurant) was at 7:30 pm, and it was 7:38 pm, and I’d been there for 17 minutes, and my friends are “on their way because the Q was late.” I would feel myself fill up with feelings (bad ones, angry ones, mean ones) and I would frantically try to let it go, fighting with myself about it.
My friends hinted to me that this was actually very not fun for anyone involved, and some would even form a habit of pointing out to me that they were “actually on time” or that they were “early, even!” to show me that they cared. That was when I started to realize the monster was me, that lateness can be excused, and that the principle of my dissonance had all the more to do with me and my anxiety than it did with the concept of punctuality.
Since the pandemic began, and I have had to reckon with all of my little inner devils and their little pitchforks, I’ve done something remarkable: I’ve shifted something about myself to make life easier, and I’ve embraced a little lateness (as a treat). What a concept.
My natural instinct basically wants me to be a Virgo, and it still urges me to leave my apartment 15 minutes early, even though I rarely run into more than a couple of odd minutes of delay. But I’m a Pisces, baby, and I am learning to go with the flow. I’ll leave 5–10 minutes after that urge tells me to get moving, and I’ve ended up getting to events exactly on time, or even up to 10 minutes late. My friend Serena actually made a point to acknowledge this shift, telling me during a recent dinner that she noticed I wasn’t exactly on time, giving me a genuine “good job!”
Somewhere along the way, I realized I was avoiding my own entire backstory to why I was so chronically early. I wasn’t doing it because I respected other people’s time — or my own. I avoided being late because I was avoiding spontaneity, avoiding being caught off-guard, avoiding outing myself, and avoiding any and all work that had to do with getting to know who I really was.
Nowadays, I am even capable of being a little late to things. I am working on unlearning over-apologizing — I’ll tell people how sorry I am when I get to a 6:30 sushi reservation at 6:38, and they’ll hardly look up from the menu.
“Oh, I didn’t even realize you were late.”
Huh! It’s one of the classic moments: even when you’re convinced everyone is noticing every single thing about you, they’re actually not. My value as a person, as it turns out, doesn’t really have much to do with how early I can get places, and how guilty I can make people feel for not being as early as I am.