Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Three Fortune cookies, still in their cellophane wrappers, sit in a bowl on the center island of my kitchen, remnants from last night's take-out. If I wait for the right moment, I figure, one of them will beckon: crack me open, see what I have to offer. It's not the taste of the cookie that ever really appealed to me anyway. In fact, if memory serves me well, I was put off by the thought of eating something with a piece of paper inside (though I confess to loving those strips of colorful dot candies I devoured as a child). And yet, as soon as the dinner plates are gone from the table, replaced by a small dish of cookies, often with slices of orange, I'm usually the first to grab for one.

Today they sit, though, wafers in a game not unlike those sleight-of-hand games that require very fixed attention – which cup is the ball under now? – the mind doing its very best to keep from being tricked. A message, important to this moment, this time in my life, will reveal itself. If I just watch carefully and choose wisely.

Let's face it, the commercial Fortune cookie is no match for a madeleine. All the same, that often soggy amalgam of flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil tempts me. Maybe it's just that I love words (especially those that hold promise), with their suggestion that anything is open for interpretation. Or that some deep-seated part of me knows that everything – let me say it again, everything – matters. When my daughter was a young girl we played a game she called 'Jewelry Store.' She would lay out her trinkets, make them available, offer them up. If I chose one she was not ready to relinquish, she would shake her head, no-no-no, it's too expensive. Then came the kicker, out of the mouths of babes: you get what you get. Is it a coincidence that today, just when I need some affirmation of what I'm doing with my life, I reach for the cookie with the hidden message, exposed now, telling me, "Your dearest dream is coming true"? Not that there's ever a bad message in a Fortune cookie, but the one I just happen to pick up speaks to me. A day later, feeling lucky again, I crack open the next cookie, the little smiley faces saying just what I need to hear: "You will maintain good health and enjoy life."

Like Fortune herself, those slings and arrows throwing her this way and that, the cookie's origins can't be pinned down. Was it a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco's Chinatown who gave out cookies to the poor, filled with tidbits of Biblical inspiration? Or a Japanese immigrant slipping a thank you note into cookies given to friends who stood by him in times of hardship? Is there any truth to the legend that messages hidden in Moon Cakes were a subversive, revolutionary tactic that aided the Chinese uprising against the Mongols centuries ago?

Astrology. Palm readings. Tarot cards. Fortune cookies. There's an undeniable impulse to know what's ahead, or at least believe that something we hope for is in the cards. Nobody wants bad news. I don't necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that sometimes Fate or Fortune or Chance – all with their nuanced differences – grabs you by the neck and says, Stop. Look. Listen.