Monday, June 11, 2012

Pancakes and Magic Johnson

People are always teaching me stuff, from best friends to celebrities. My challenge is to be open to these learning opportunities when they come my way. Sometimes teachable moments emerge as a whisper, like when my friend Cornal once asked a simple question over breakfast.
It was a casual query, gracious in delivery, and not in the least judgmental. Had I not been truly listening, I might have missed the invaluable wisdom he conferred upon to me that morning. As I was about to smother my pancakes in rich creamy butter, he asked simply, “Have you ever tried them without it?”
On any other day my knee-jerk response might have been to ‘sneer and smear.’ But in that moment, the sheer impartiality of his question made me pause and think. Then something profound happened. I considered something I had been on auto-pilot about for as long as I’d been old enough to use a fork. Something I’d never thought about my entire life was now in the forefront of my mind.
I considered: I had never eaten pancakes without butter. My next thought: People do that? Then: Well, it is high in cholesterol. The ‘devil’ on one shoulder smirked: But you don’t have a cholesterol problem. My guardian angel on the other replied: Would it hurt to try?
How often do you hear a person talking but you’re not really listening?
Sometimes life lessons come as a result of not a single word being spoken. One night many years ago, just this kind of lesson came my way. It was from an NBA superstar.
I was waiting in line to attend a lavish celebration in Los Angeles. The evening event was a rooftop affair, and partygoers had to be swept up there by a bank of elevators manned by tuxedo-clad ushers. Hundreds waited as a handful at a time rode up. It was hot and sticky but folks took the shuffle-forward-and-wait drill fairly well.
After a while, I noticed someone standing head and shoulders above the rest of us, literally. It was Magic Johnson. Now this was during Showtime, when the Lakers reigned supreme. Magic was at the top of his game, the world was at his feet, and nothing in L.A. was denied him. After a moment, I realized something amazing was happening: Magic was waiting with the rest of us. Patiently.
At the time I was an editor of a music magazine, and quite aware this act of humility was not one typically associated with Hollywood superstars. More familiar was the scenario of celebs strutting to the front of lines with expectations of A-list treatment, so this moment was not wasted on me. I marveled as the NBA’s MVP waited his turn. Chatting and cheesing, but mostly waiting; shuffling a few steps and waiting again, like us.
After a while, one of the ushers noticed Magic, beckoned him to the next open elevator and then he was gone. As I continued to wait I thought, how easy it would have been for Magic to have used his million-dollar smile and squeeze to the front of the line when he had first arrived.
Watching Magic, with his patient, gracious manner, showed me that although one might have the power to get what one wanted, not to use it recklessly. That lesson, plus the simple yet equally powerful breakfast table experience, is among the memories that serve as guideposts for the way I choose to live my life.
And pancakes: I don’t add butter anymore.

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