Life is a short stack - eat heartily
If you’ve ever waitressed or you like pancakes, you know what a short stack is. It’s about three 6 to 7-inch diameter steaming pancakes on a warm plate. Yum. The key word is “stack.” I equate the making of a short stack of pancakes to the success one makes in life.
If I’m going to compare my best efforts making pancakes to constructing a life, I also have to include a time line, because that’s how we measure our lives, don’t we?
The newspaper business is my sixth career, so I’ve had to get the waitress’s attention for another short stack order six times, showing (I hope) a hearty appetite for life and adventure. Here’s the time line.
Your first Saturday or Sunday morning pancake is the worst of the lot. The batter might stick to the griddle in places, the pancake might be a little oily because you overcompensate by adding too much canola, or maybe the pancake sides are a little burnt because “honey, the skillet is too hot.” And isn’t that just like our first forays into the job world?
We haven’t yet gotten the experience to navigate the tough issues we’ll face, confidence isn’t a part of our shadow, so while we might shine, we might feel like it was unearned. After all, even a blind hog finds an acorn every now and then. So its a messy learning base. Who would have thought an ugly pancake could keep the best chef humble? That’s O.K. because it goes on the bottom of the stack—hidden and later covered by sweet syrup and salted butter to further conceal our mistakes.
“Pancake one” forces us to make a plan, so we have better looking pancakes. I put the coffee down, stop whistling, and I settle down and focus. We scrape the griddle and pull just a little bit of oil over the dry spots (I use cast iron) and check my heat. I poor the batter and bubbles form—not too fast (high heat) and not too slowly (heat too low).
I had thrown away my Department of Conservation job for a rock and roll band in Atlanta, Ga. After five years of club dates and touring and an oh-so-close recording contract, the band crumbled. I was lost. More than my first pancakes were burned on the edges. So was my bank account and my ego. I needed a plan.
I drew out a timeline of where I’d been and what I had accomplished up to my mid-30’s. My little apartment in mid-town had the bare essentials, but it did hold a few books about succeeding in life. I studied my faults and my strengths in a plan for improvement and I made and wrote down specific goals. I made a folder of things I would like to acquire and places I would like to experience under the umbrella of a Christian life.
If I obtained none of these things, it was a fun and doable exercise that was action-based and God directed.
With trepidation, I flipped my second pancake over carefully. It was a golden brown, not “cakey and thick,” but smooth-textured and soft with more thickness than a crepe.
My plan was working both at the griddle and out on the streets of Atlanta where I learned the value of alignment— of both the art of networking and character-building persistence. I wound up at a global marketing company as a junior account person helping to run promotions for companies like McDonalds and Kraft Foods.
Now, my cast iron griddle was holding a stable heat, nothing was sticking and warm-golden cake showed consistency, like I could resort to automatic pilot. I was in Tijuana at the Holiday Inn on Avenue de los Heroes when I got a call to see if I could manage a McDonalds job in Naples, Italy with our sister branch out of Frankfurt, Germany. I would miss watching the soccer games with the locals at the laundry mat, but I was ready to leave the Third World behind. Two weeks later in another form of Third World in southern Italy, I was presented the opportunity to spend the weekend on the island of Capri. Where had I heard of that Mediterranean Isle before? Then I remembered the torn magazine pages I saved of gorgeous white hotels, whose balcony overlooks dropped off a thousand feet into azure blue water. Those pages were in the folder I had made five years previous to my trip to Napoli. I later worked with an accountant whose mother owned the most popular bar in Anicapri (the hilltop town on Capri), so I visited often and was treated like a local. Coincidence or fulfilling a goal? Either way, my stack was taking shape.
The third pancake slid off the griddle onto the other two, perfect in every way. All three tasted equally delicious, but the lesson is that each pancake, no matter how bad or good, supported the others through a culinary learning experience. Life is no different.
I’ve had to start the griddle from cold to hot six times, but I got better at it each time I cranked the heat. For a young person with big aspirations, the big breakfast might be too big. Start with the small stack, value improvements in character and learning and eat heartily.