At Times, Too Much Planning Is Worse Than Too Little

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There’s an old story about a convict who looked back at his life and realized he had wasted more than 15 years in and out of prison and the only thing he had to show for it was another eight-year sentence, with no prospects at its end.

Determined to make something of himself, he searched for a way to do it, but he had landed in a high security prison where there were no opportunities whatsoever for self-improvement.

Downcast, the prisoner sat on his bunk day after day trying to find some way out of his dilemma. Then one day he noticed a tiny flea jumping around on the cold concrete floor.

“That’s it!” he said, struck by sudden inspiration.

And so he spent 10 hours a day, every day, for the next eight years training that tiny flea to do feats that no flea had ever done before. Feats so rare and so entertaining that he was certain a great future in show business lay ahead of him.

Carrying the flea in a tiny home the size of a snuff box, meticulously constructed from a tin can he had worked on for weeks, the ex-convict and — he was certain — soon to be famous flea trainer, after months of walking the streets finally obtained an interview with a top show business agent.

Ushered into the agent’s office across plush carpet and seated in a chair before the agent’s polished walnut desk, the excited, but confident, ex-con took out his highly trained protege, placed him on the polished surface of the immense desk, put him through his paces, and calmly waited for the agent to show up.

The door opened. In strode the agent.

“OK,” he said. You’ve talked your way to an interview, now either prove I should waste five minutes on you or get out.”

“You want proof?” the ex-con asked. “Boy, have I got proof! Wait’ll you see this! A one of a kind! A super sensational ...”

“Hold on a minute!” the agent said. Bending over, he reached down and pressed a fat thumb on the waxed surface of his desk.

Lifting the now bug-stained thumb, he frowned at the ex-con. “I hate those dang things, don’t you?”

Ever had a moment like that? Where a great plan went wrong?

I have. Mostly back when I was younger. Back then I tended to plan too hard in hopes of avoiding any possibility of a screwup.

Which, let me tell you, is a good way of guaranteeing that there will be one.

I’ve mentioned some of my screwups here in the column. I’ll just remind you of a couple of them.

Let’s see ...

There was the time poor old Abdul was about to get fired from his job with the embassy in Karachi, so I spent two weeks teaching him how to drive the forklift so he would have a needed skill.

Needless to say, he ran into me with the forklift, leaving me with a bad hip and a limp which I still have to this day.

Then there was the time I got really tired of being beaten at penny-pitching, spent two weeks designing a gadget that would bounce a mere fraction of an inch off a wall no matter how badly you pitched it, and challenged the local champ to a high-stakes penny-pitching contest, insisting on a rule that we could use anything we wanted as a substitute for a coin.

He, fool that he was — or so I thought — agreed.

I went first. I took out my little highly polished, specially designed, solid silver gadget, and tossed it against the wall. It struck hard, but rebounded less than a quarter inch.

“Go ahead, sucker,” I told him. “Beat that!”

He took out a penny box of wooden matches and tossed it against the wall. And there it stuck, not close to the wall but in actual contact with it.

The box, you see, struck the wall and started to rebound, but the loose matches inside the box slid forward and pushed it back tight against the wall.

And then there was the time that I ...

But let me spare you my smaller embarrassments and get right to the greatest, all time, make-a-fool-of-yourself event in the entire history of mankind.

Okinawa. Anno domini 1965. Kadena Air Base.

Garrett is at a party, playing a game where the main purpose is to get everyone else as snockered as possible while you sit back with a smug look on your face, stone sober.

Garrett is sure he cannot lose. Because, you see, he knows this game. And he has a plan ...

In the game, everyone — holding a full drink, of course — sits in a circle.

Someone names a subject, let’s say cars. A rhythmic chant begins, hands slapping knees. The turn passes around the circle. At the precise moment it is your turn you must name a car which has not been named before.

If you don’t, you chugalug your drink.

The action begins. “Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Toyota ...”

It’s easy at first. But as the turn passes around the circle it becomes increasingly difficult. People begin to sweat. Not only is it hard to think of a car that hasn’t been named, but there’s an additional whammy. What if you have a brand in mind and the person just ahead of you says it?

Well-l-l-l. Big Bad Tom knows how to handle that!

Just keep two names in mind all the time.

So there we are. Drunk as skunks. Except for me, of course. The car game ends. Some poor fool chugalugs. We begin again. The subject is dogs. The knee slapping begins. The pressure is on.

“Terrier ... slap! Pug ... slap! Chow ... slap! Spitz ... slap!”

Sweat pours down faces. Eyes glisten. Twice around we go. The tension rises.

Someone is bound to break.

But having planned well, I know I cannot lose. I keep saying two names my head: “Pointer-setter. Pointer-setter. Pointer-setter.”

And then, my turn! All I have to do is get past this round and I’m home free!

Someone is bound to break.

“Poinsettia,” I yell out.

It is recorded that the laughter was heard all the way to Naha City, 20 miles away.

I had — oh — 16 months left on the island.

I hope you don’t think I ever lived that one down.

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