The Comedy and Tragedy of Spontaneity

Posted on January 4, 2009 by Robert Ringer


My approach to life is to plan carefully, then relentlessly focus on execution.  I don’t mean to sound stuffy, but to me impulsiveness is a sign of irresponsible behavior.

That’s why those who know me best would lay 100-to-1 odds that I would never make a spur-of-the-moment decision to hop on a train and head for New York on New Year’s Eve.  And they would have lost their shirts on that bet this year.

What they would have failed to take into consideration was a phenomenon known as temporary insanity.  It was my wife’s birthday, plus my son loves Times Square, so I impulsively blurted out, “What the heck.  Let’s do it!”  (Translation: “I’m game for a good refresher lesson on why impulsiveness is not a good habit.”)

The next thing I knew, my wife, my son, and I were on an Amtrak train heading for the Big Apple.  We were looking forward to two events — being in Times Square when the countdown to midnight started and gorging ourselves on the Stage Delicatessen’s version of health food.

We pulled into Penn Station about 9:30 p.m.  All we needed to do was go up to the street level, walk a few blocks, and we’d be in the heart of Times Square.  “Hey,” I thought to myself, “this spontaneous stuff is great.”

To our surprise, however, after walking a few blocks up Seventh Avenue, we ran smack into a barricade manned by a battalion of New York’s finest.  They directed us, and thousands of other people, to head toward Eighth Avenue — the opposite direction from Times Square!

The next thing we knew, we were trudging up Eighth Avenue in a scene right out of the movie Escape from New York.  Hoodlums, street people, schizophrenics — you name it — were coming and going in every direction.  I felt like we were drowning in a sea of tattoos and earrings … every kind of tattoo you could imagine.  One guy had a tattoo on his forehead that was either a serpent or Nancy Pelosi, but I couldn’t tell for sure which it was.

But the earrings were even wilder.  Earrings in noses … earrings in tongues … earrings in eyelids … earrings in belly buttons.  I stopped at the belly buttons.  I didn’t want to think about where else the earrings might be attached.  The only thing I was sure of was that I would never again buy my wife a pair of earrings.

We tried to go back toward Seventh Avenue and Times Square every few blocks, but at each entry point we were turned back by a brigade of police.  Finally, we reached the end of the line — Central Park.  No luck there, either.  The barricade ran from Eighth Avenue across Central Park South to the end of the earth.

Resigning myself to the fact that we were not going to see the ball drop in Times Square at midnight, I concluded it was time to throw in the towel and head for the Stage Deli.  Once there, we could drown our disappointment in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and lots of sugar (disguised as strawberry cheesecake).

Only one problem:  I forgot that the police had blocked off all entries to Seventh Avenue, which is where the Stage Deli is located, between 53rd and 54th Streets.  Not being able to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square was one thing, but keeping me from my fair share of corned beef, chopped liver, dill pickles, and cheesecake was a clear violation of my civil rights.  I thought about calling Al Sharpton on my cell phone to help me form a picket line, but decided against it.

Finally, after the responsible area of my brain had taken control, we ended up at an Italian restaurant on Eighth Avenue.  The food was somewhere on a par with the culinary offerings at Abu Ghraib Prison.  The only thing missing was the nudity.

We left the restaurant and again wandered through the sea of tattoos and earrings on Eighth Avenue.  Suddenly, at 54th Street — at about 1:00 a.m. — I saw that the police were beginning to remove the barricades.

Mental flashbulb:  We’ll go to the Stage Deli for cheesecake dessert!  It would be a perfect ending to a less-than-perfect night.  Before you knew it, we were turning the corner at 54th Street and Seventh Avenue and marching resolutely toward the Stage Deli.

But when you see through the windows that the chairs are stacked up on the tables, it’s not a good omen of things to come.  Sure enough, the door was locked and the sign hanging on it was fairly easy to understand:  CLOSED!

Once again, my civil rights had been violated.  I had a right to that cheesecake I was looking at through the window.  After all, wasn’t it guaranteed by some constitutional amendment?  Something like, “Congress shall make no law prohibiting people from eating cheesecake, especially on New Year’s Eve.”  I’m almost certain I read about that amendment somewhere.  Come Monday, I’d have to check it out with the ACLU.

We arrived back at Penn Station in time for our 2:45 a.m. departure.  Three-plus hours of trying to find a comfortable position … dozing off and on … stuffy, stifling heat … clickety-clack, clickety-clack.  Mercifully, our New Year’s Eve trip to New York and back came to an end at around 6:00 a.m.

The only thing I love more than learning new things is a refresher lesson on something I already know.  That’s why, as George Orwell put it in his classic book 1984, the best books are those that tell you what you already know.

Learning, relearning, and motivation are like eating:  You have to do them every day.  For me, spontaneity is not a healthy way to fill one’s needs, but even I manage to slip every five to ten years and do something impulsive.

I recognize that millions of people live by the philosophy “let it all hang out” and “live for the moment.”  But what works for me is avoiding impulsive action and relying more on my intellect.  I like to check and double-check the facts.  I like to be in control of events rather than allowing events to control me.  I like to know when, where, and how things are going to happen.

None of these traits detracts from my being an action-oriented person.  On the whole, I like to think I move pretty fast, but I like to give myself the benefit of some serious thought prior to taking action.

All things considered, my little tale about my New Year’s Eve experience was more comedy than tragedy.  But if one engages in a steady diet of impulsive action in either his personal or business life, he’s almost certain to end up with far more of the latter than the former.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.