Time Trilogy

As a child, the phrase "better late than never" was a consolation phrase: "sorry, take it or leave it." It was how things were done on Guam. 

When you were on Guam in the 1970s, you were at the edge, staring down into the abyss. We were a 5-hour flight from the West Coast to Hawaii and then another 8 hours till solid ground. Packages took 3 to 4 weeks by shipping if they caught the right boat, otherwise, it was 6 weeks until arrival. This meant we were last on the line, first forgotten, and never asked after, a small island that was the final outpost facing an enemy across the water. 

In an era of encroaching Communism through South-East Asia, where Laos was falling and Cambodia was soon to follow, a silly little thing like Christmas trees not arriving before Christmas was really no big in the grand scheme of things. So, while we ignored the nuclear bombs being driven overland from the naval port to the air force base up north, destined for Vietnam, we eagerly kept our eyes peeled for the big container ships from Washington state that would bring in our Christmas trees on American President Lines. 

But this one year, where were the trees? People were calling up friends and relatives who owed them favors (threats were used too) to be first on the list when the trees finally came in. Nothing was as good as a real tree (and fake trees 'looked like crap'). It was said ad nauseum, but the trees were still not there at the end of November. That was sacrilege.  Island custom dictated trees were up the day after Thanksgiving, and down at Epiphany in January. No trees arrived the first week of December and the island went into a panic. We didn't care that Vietnam had now invaded Cambodia, the Russians and Chinese were threatening to intervene, and that 10,000 more military personnel were being posted in the Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa. Our lives were coming to an end because we had no trees to decorate for Santa. 

There was only one tree up in public. It was down in the civic center district of Agana, in the big plaza adjacent to the Pan American Airlines offices and the Legislature. It was a monster. It envisioned everything we held dear - White Christmas in the tropics and corporate philanthropy (all courtesy of the Boeing 747). Every year, Pan Am flew in a real 30-foot tree for the people of Guam, to thank us for our service and loyalty all the way back when they flew airboats (China Clippers), in the 1930s between San Francisco and Shanghai. And this particular year, if you wanted a tree, your only option was to go down and look at this one. It was too big to steal, otherwise, those inhabitants of "Guam" (previously La Isla de Los Ladrones, named by Magellan as 'the islands of thieves') would have pinched the mammoth evergreen. 30 feet meant deterrent.

I remember school kids walking over and crying at the tree like it was some big totem pole that year. Their prayers and frustrations were left unanswered. It was an odd time on the island. We had previously gone through a massive typhoon. The push was for normalcy at all cost. In schools, we wore our uniforms. At church, we worshiped under tarpaulin roofs until the tin siding could be reinstalled and the roof work finished. To a small child, Christmas was everything: the alpha and the omega in a kiddy pantheon of deities - Santa, Easter Bunny and The Tooth Faerie. We as children could only hope and pray (and secretly blame our parents) for letting this happen. 

And suddenly by December 20th, the radio stations and news broadcasts on the island had everyone whipped up into a hot frenzy. There would be no trees available until the 24th at least. Someone had leaked the shipping manifests. Hysteria mounted as we got closer to Christmas recess. Couldn't the airforce be drafted to fly trees in, asked a local politician in the legislature (there was a war in Indochina, sorry, no). Trees were mentioned in the homilies in Church. Kids on the bus would board and quiz each other to see if anyone had found a tree yet. And you knew not to joke about having a real tree (you ended up with a mob following you off the bus to your house and pulverizing you for lying afterward if you did). 

That year in our subdivision, the lights were all placed outside with the yuletide statues on the lawns. Something was clearly missing. There was a gaping space at many a big front window, where trees should have been merrily blinking at passers-by. 

As far back as I remember, my parents had fake trees. No mess - and you could tidy them away after. They were a certain type of tree person who quietly put up their artificial one, and kept the lights off in the spirit of the Frank family hiding up in the attic in Holland while the Nazis roamed below.   

The other type of tree person proudly showed off their greenery, all tarted up, thumbing their noses at the unfortunate pedestrians. One of our neighbors even chopped down a tree from their front yard to put in their living room (my father theorized it had to be brought indoors before someone else uprooted it and took it home).  

Our tree was tucked into our living room. The lights did not get turned on as we didn't want a rock through the window so our tree could be stolen either (and oh, it did happen). We were happy with our little Anne Frank Christmas tree.

Then a minute cultural upheaval unfolded. It suddenly became explosively OK to have a fake tree if you had been a type 2 tree person before. People began villainizing shipping companies and scrambling like mad toward the home centers for trees. The tallest were the first to go. The smallest trees were treated like a bastard at a family reunion. As we approached Christmas eve we heard someone had stolen a tree from a Church! 

Soon, the third type of tree person emerged: the stubborn (irrational) remainders who were going into the boonies (boondocks/jungle or whatever you may call it) to hack down ironwood pine, a hardwood, long-needled pine named after its density. Those were scraggly. The needles dropped off about 2 days after the initial cutting (or hacking), and everyone who brought them into the home ended up inviting flora, fauna, and insects into their abodes as well. It was just like being in the manger all over again - mites, ants, and spiders! Those were the Charlie Brown Christmas tree people.

I was out with my Mom running errands a couple of days before Christmas and we stopped to visit someone. The talk was about non-arrived trees, heartbreak, and revenge. One lady from the Episcopal Church Gift Shop of St. Johns looked at the rest of us and cut right through our conversation: "I have lived in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and a few other places, and have yet to celebrate 2 identical Christmases." Pure class and I mean it.  She toasted us with a glass of champagne and a MacDonald's cheeseburger as she decorated a small palm tree's fronds with ornaments. Here was a woman as old then as I am now, bending with the forces. Can most people have this breadth of flexibility? Are they really willing to be so yielding?

Oh yes, the trees, you ask?  

They did arrive, the day before Christmas, so damaged they had to be bound in sets of two, with the hope each sad pair might vaguely resemble a single, full tree. The stores lost money and most people slowly realized that dentists, military and old people's fake trees really weren't so bad.  Those trees were never late. They were simply waiting patiently until the next typhoon would fly them away with their owner's roof, or until the following Christmas when they would go out on display again.  


As a college student, we were ramping it up in the 80s (were any of you even born then?). 

I had a professor who regularly gave homework. I had no social life, so homework assigned that afternoon was done that night, typed and submitted the next day. They were then viciously marked and returned a full letter grade lower than others who turned theirs in on time. 

After the third occurrence, I realized that I would continue to do my homework early, finish it the day after, but wait to submit it - and so my assignments sat in my locker. My experiment worked - and I was soon receiving better grades for the same work.

One day, my professor came up to me demanding my paper early. Politely, I asked if the date was changed.

"No, but I can count on your paper early so I can start getting them out of the way." He huffed.

Yes, I knew that. A few more submissions helped me realize that my grades went up when I waited because many fellow students turned in some truly awful work. 

So while it's not better late than never it is "better later than early", Professor.


As an employee, my idea of time has changed in the year 2016. Better late than never? Not a chance.

Here, you are ruled by evaluations and performance tools. Your work is paid and judged and weighed by your superiors and the clock is the unfair arbiter which rules you, with "late is late" sounding between each tick and tock.  

What is my version of time management? Well, it is still the summer and all of my Christmas gifts have been planned and purchased up to and including this coming Christmas. They have all been stacked in the closet and no, Mom you can't switch the one that says Anniversary for Mother's Day because it is a bigger box. At work, I build the same margins because others don't respond to me as quickly as I do for them.  

No, I will not, once again, take on two-thirds of your project while you disappear into the loo in an attempt to have your work delegated to me (if I work 1.6 x more than a regular employee, there had better be a similar percentage reflected in my pay packet, sweetheart). Those 4 Starbucks cups on your desk tell me you had enough time to treat yourself to 2 hours of coffee breaks while I worked for myself and then for you. And where's my latte? Shameful!

I show my manager that I will finish my project right on time (but really, I've finished light years ago) so Mr. Supervior will have no choice but to pitch in himself and help the slacker sitting next to me. He will have to peer around the towers of junk food wrappers and coffee cups on that desk (there is a human in there somewhere because I can hear it masticating), roll up his sleeves, like a good Bossman, and maybe realize my evaluation should be a millionfold better than my counterpart.  

It's all about time management: "better on time than early."