Jane passed around to the group at the table little plastic bags, each containing two Chinese fortune cookies. "For next week," she said, "write somethingóanythingócontaining whatís on one or both of the fortunes inside your cookies." I took one bag and passed the rest on.
Fortune cookies are guilt-free. They probably donít contain any fat, and very little sugar. I suspect nobody would ever eat them if they didnít have those little slips of paper in them telling the opener something about themselves that, as Wallace Shawn put it in the movie My Dinner With Andre, "the fortune cookie has no way of knowing anything about me." So one is free of the responsibility to defend or deny anything the cookie says. If you donít like what it says, you can wad up the paper and tell your table mates that "it wasnít relevant to me."
Of course, just saying that much might cause the lady next to you to laugh and grab the wad and open it, then gleefully read it aloud. That may be what you wanted in the first place, if the saying on the paper is too flattering for you to read it aloud yourself.
Some fortune cookie fortunes are not fortunes, at all. One of mine on the day in question read, "He who hurries cannot walk with dignity." I pictured myself walking briskly, leaning forward, a clutch of papers in my hand, my objective blocking out all other thoughts, even how I might look to othersónot walking with dignity. I suppose that tells me something about myself, even though the fortune cookie didnít know it. A sort of Delphic Oracle pronouncement. But if Iím late for my meeting, who cares about dignity? Iíll look even less dignified if I walk in late and draw attention to myself in the middle of the bossís opening remarks. I can see my homeroom teacher now, turning away from the class to fix me in her disapproving gaze. "Donald," she says, "Iím so glad youíve honored us with your presence." The other kids laugh. I donít want to write about that fortune.
I crack open the other cookie. Someone else reports, "Hey, one of mine is empty!" I spread out the little slip on the table before me. "Learning Chinese," it says, and "You are welcome," with the translation in English characters, "pur cur chee." The next time I give my order to a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and he thanks me, Iíll say, "pur cur chee." I know Iíll get a blank stare.
On the other side, the slip reads, "You have a good sense of humor and love a good time." I picture myself leaning back in my chair and laughing uproariously. Of course, Iíd have to have a couple of drinks in me to do that. Otherwise, Iíd be more apt to just chuckle. That doesnít mean that I donít have a sense of humor, but only that I donít express it uproariously very easily. And who doesnít love a good time?
I picture the writing on the wall over the urinal in a truck stop rest room, "For a good time, call 745-1234. Chrissie."
Having a good time depends more on my state of mind than it does on the circumstances Iím in. Iíve been to parties where everybody else seemed to be having a good time and I was just sitting there feeling out of it. Depressing. A couple of drinks make a big difference. A couple more, and the difference isnít so good. But thatís a different story.
I remember one time at coffee break, the boss came in and said quietly, "I think you all are having way too much fun." And the fun went away at once. We slithered back to our desks and pretended to be hard at work the rest of the day. The boss doesnít have to say it more than once.
My mother did, though. Late at night, with company downstairs, my sisters and I are still energized even though weíve been told to go to bed, and weíre having a good time telling each other jokes. Momís voice comes up the stairs, "Settle down up there, or you father will come up and settle you down! This is the last time Iím telling you!" Only when we heard footsteps on the stairs did we fall asleep instantly. You know if you bury your face in the pillow to keep from laughing, you get too much carbon dioxide from breathing the same air, and that causes you to breathe harder. They could always tell if we werenít asleep.
Having a good time isnít all itís cracked up to be. And having a sense of humor is like being good lookingóit attracts the girls. But otherwise it doesnít mean much. They say youíll live longer if you laugh a lot, but I know a lot of old people who are real grouches.
Chinese fortune cookies donít have much going for them. Not much nutrition, and not much fortune. I donít know how anyone could make up an assignment from one in a writing class.
The lucky numbers might be good, however. You never know.
May 2, 2003