If you are reading this while sitting in an airport lounge, congratulating yourself that you have arrived two hours before the flight, I have bad news for you. Equally, if you are at one of our grand railway stations a good 30 minutes before the train goes, don’t think you’re so clever. Rather than it being a good idea to arrive so early that you could almost write a novel before departure, you have got it all wrong. According to American maths professor Jordan Ellenberg, at least.
Getting to the airport frightfully early, we now learn, is a bad strategy. In his book How Not to be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life, he summarises it thus: “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.” So instead of creating a scene at Terminal Three last year when I and my entire family managed to miss the single daily flight to Addis Ababa prior to a week on safari, I should have celebrated? Essentially, yes. The Prof says that we should calculate the “negative units” of time wasted in airports, and try to eliminate them by choosing the optimal time to arrive. This is the precise moment which minimises wasted time, while keeping your chance of catching the flight in play.
If you don’t do it thus, warns the Prof, you will be wasting time. Now, before you say “So what?”, I must remind you that time-wasting is regarded as a cardinal sin. From built-in tumble dryers, to remote-controlled garden sprinklers, ready-made food and even the spellcheck on our computers, domestic living has become utterly streamlined in order to protect us all from the toxic notion of “wasting time”. Years ago, I interviewed the comedian Jack Dee and was struck by his revelation that he hated wasting time so much that he absolutely ensured he always had a newspaper, or a copy of The New Yorker to hand, just in case an accidental longueur should suddenly crash into his daily routine.
I realise I am the same. I not only lay the breakfast table every night, but I prepare the breadmaker so a fresh loaf is ready just at the time everyone comes downstairs. If I know I have even 15 minutes to spend on public transport, or while waiting for a child to come out of a ballet lesson, I make sure I bring either a copy of The New Yorker (thanks Jack) with me, or at least have my phone charged up in order that no second of my day can go past when I am not doing something formative and fulfilling with it. I’ve even started reading Tom Jones (length: over 900 pages) to ward off the terrifying notion of being hijacked by an empty vessel of Spare Time.
Yet when you find yourself spending hours putting all your CDs onto your computer (so as not to waste time in the future doing tiresome things such as taking a CD out of its case), or backing up all your accounts into time-saving files, or laying your clothes out the night before so you don’t waste time in the morning getting dressed, you do start to wonder.
Maybe we should all be a bit more relaxed about the fear of wasting time, and waste less time fretting about it. Yes, it is great to arrive at the station just as the tube train slides into view, or to swish open a wardrobe and discover a phalanx of ironed shirts (which took you two hours to do the other night) – rather than swearing under your breath, grabbing a wrinkled horror and praying you know where the ironing board is. But surely it is just as important to live your life in the moment, rather than working out the optimum time to arrive at the airport next week?
We are all now being told that “mindfulness”, or being aware of the joy in the present, is a crucial part of mental happiness. I can’t help but wonder if the Professor has chosen to ignore this. The danger with his theory is that in putting every single hour through a mathematical algorithm, life becomes so functional that one forgets that drifting around quite happily picking up a book, glancing through it, and putting it down again, or simply letting your mind wander, or indeed, wandering around Terminal 5, is a key part of a pleasurable existence.
Indeed, when I apply the Prof’s wisdom to my own crammed, time-poor, frantic lifestyle, I realise that the only moments I feel wholly relaxed are when my time-saving devices are nowhere near me, and I am actually “wasting time”. Running miles and miles along the Regent’s Canal tow path, for example. Or sitting leafing through ancient bird books at my parents’ house. I once spent 12 hours waiting for a plane at Sao Paulo airport. It’s the sort of thing that would have driven Prof Ellenberg crazy. I don’t even remember having a book to hand. I just drifted around and looked at people, who were also drifting around.
It was good.
Pucker up, folks – it’s time to admit the kiss is our hello
How do you do? Not a sentence I bet you have heard in the last few years. Indeed, the only person I know who actively uses it these days is my father, aged 83.
But this is a grave loss to the British way of life, says an anthropologist, Kate Fox, who claims that nowadays, we don’t have a proper “greeting ritual”. And that we don’t know how to “interact”.
What’s to be done? When I was at school in America, people used to walk around saying “What’s up?” and then walk off before you had thought what was, indeed, up.
“Every single other nation on the planet has a straightforward ritual,” continues Fox, which sounds like she has gone through a sort of Eurovision contest style analysis of how the Finns, the Cameroonians or the Slovakians say hello.
Of course we have a proper greeting ritual. Begun, I modestly attest, in my own fair neighbourhood, namely the London Borough of Islington.
This is the double kiss, of course. Mock it at your peril, the “mwah mwah” so beloved of the chattering classes encompasses an awful lot of social hurdles. It makes people smile and it makes them feel, if not downright loved, then at least vaguely liked. Kissing is the way forward, Ms Fox. It really is.