Thursday, May 26, 2011

Words Let Loose

An indelible photo of a gaunt man sitting on a bench remains long after Reverend Camping's predication of the Rapture goes awry.

"I invested my life's savings."

The man holds a package on his lap and stares ahead. His clothes hang on his thin frame. He slumps.

"I'm disappointed." and then he adds, " the past few months have been exciting."

Why does his face remain with me? What is so compelling about this figure? I don't doubt that touring around the United States in a bus, handing out brochures, being part of a group was exciting—especially if you often felt isolated or lonely.

What happens to words we say? Words that promise, words that hurt?Words that wear themselves out with a false hospitality.

Word sleuths estimate that the average adult utters about 8,000 words a day. How many of those words count? How many are even noticed? How many do you want back? How many do you want to rearrange?

With all those words spewed out it's easy to misinterpret. And the hearer brings her own definitions, her own context. Who hasn't apologized for the errant word?

And words once let out remain outside of our province. We can't rein them in, pretend they weren't said, start over with a new sentence. More words must be expended to mend the rifts. Then there are the words that buoy the spirit, are played back continually, form a backbone of a relationship. words that mentor, words that heal, words that lift the spirit, words of praise.

But it's the other words—the words that can't be reeled in, tucked away.Thy are like dust mites infiltrating the atmosphere.

Often those words aren't attached to long speeches. They are short statements with long lives. For some people those statements, even when forgotten or forgiven, still leave traces. Traces that may last for a lifetime.

Will the man who sat on the bench be satisfied with the months traveling around in a bus, the camaraderie of the believers? Will be believe the reverend's explanation and the new date? Does it matter?

Think of the words we all set in motion. If 8,000 is an accurate figure then in the course of one year I speak 2,920,000 words. That's a lot of words to take responsibility for, a lot of words to watch. How many do you want back? How many do you want to rearrange?

I have my list.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fortune Cookies

When Baron Makoto Hagiware , a Japanese nobleman, brought fortune cookies— Tsuji ura sembei— to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco the customers gave it a thumbs up. Soon bakers couldn't keep up with the demand. Was it the fortune inside or the sweet taste that captivated the eating public? Originally these cookies were eaten during New Year's celebrations at Japanese Shinto shrines.

The enigma—how did a Japanese invention morph into a Chinese fortune cookie—the now ubiquitous fortune cookie.

Our Chinese restaurant wasn't local. Local eateries included a luncheonette where a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich or melted cheese sandwich sopping with butter were favorites. Then there was the man who came around the neighborhood selling Carmel dipped figs and marshmallows. My father didn't bring home containers of Chinese take out, but my mother occasionally bought a La Choy's family pack--a 34-ounce package of chop suey or chow mien.

By the time I entered college my knowledge of Chinese food expanded. I recall huge menus with choices that encouraged the diner to select one from group A and one from group B or for more money two from group A. The permutations one could spin. I loved pouring over the menu. And at the end of the meal each participant of the repast received a fortune cookie.

Who believed the fortunes? Did anyone anticipate that their financial situation would take an upward trajectory or that it was not an opportune moment to spend money ?

My friend Annie believed. She also read her horoscope and even read tea leaves. All these predictions often left her unable to move ahead because of dire consequences. Once her fortune foretold a kink in her plans, " You will receive an important letter which will alter your life path." Since Annie had decided that she wanted to study French and work at the United Nations this possible abrupt interruption into her plans caused havoc. Fortunately no unexpected letters arrived. Despite the erroneous fortune she continued to savor the end of a Chinese meal and the arrival of her fortune.

I never believed that any of the folded papers contained any truth and envisioned a circle of people creating these words out of all the possible desires we all harbor. How many times did someone at the table discover that the love of their life was getting ready to walk front stage?

But suppose you received the opportunity to stuff the cookie with a few guaranteed fortunes. It's like being offered three wishes. Fairy tales are replete with stories that don't work out. Something disappears when the wish is granted. Magic potions aren't the answer.

Who cares about previous stories. Invent new versions. Just for extra security invoke a deity. Pray.