An Ode to Being Late

Either you’re early or you’re late. I choose tardiness.

illustration of figure running away from huge rolling clock on orange background
Tim Lahan

Okay, White Rabbit, what’s it all about?

“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Alice is drowsing on the riverbank; you rush past, startling her. From your waistcoat, you pull out a pocket watch. You consult it feverishly. Then you disappear down a hole, and she—amazed—follows you into Wonderland.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the March 2022 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

Me, I’m always late. Or about to be late. Or working very hard not to be late—barely overcoming lateness. Oh dear! Oh dear! Why am I like this? No Alice is made curious by my haste. No marvels ensue. Just the serrated feeling of a pissed-off world. Squeezed horizons, clammy feet—these are the symptoms of a chronic belatedness. Why do I do it?

There are theories, of course. One: I’m an incorrigible narcissist. Everybody must wait for me. Like a king, or a comet. Sure, the weaker part of me will hustle along and stammer out apologies on arrival. But the royal, cometary part is gratified. Behold—their lives were empty until I came. Two: In a low-testosterone, 21st-century, blue-state, blah-blah life, a life neutered of genuine risk, this is what passes for adventure. I should be hunting caribou. I should be tripping with the medicine man. Instead I’m checking the time every 42 seconds and cursing the laws of physics.

Am I that pathetic, though? Yes. But here’s the thing about punctuality: It doesn’t really exist. Perfect punctuality is a pinhead, a notional point on the continuum, kind of a Zeno’s paradox. To be punctual, you have to be early—because if you’re not early, you’re late. And what does being early mean? It means padding your schedule with loose minutes, margins for error, insulating layers of dead time. It means waiting rooms. It means the tickle of the abyss.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland gives us two opposing principles, cosmic rhythm and counter-rhythm: the girl in her summery torpor, the palpitating rabbit. I choose lateness. It gives me velocity. I veer through crowds; I hurdle over interference. Here I come. And if you’re waiting for me, relax. Stop scowling. I’m never that late.

This article appears in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “Ode to Being Late.”