Wednesday, March 19, 2008

C is for Cookie (that's good enough for me!)

Students always ask me where I get my quotes from, to which, after ignoring the poor grammatical structure of their inquiry, I reply, "from reading, non-reading, and other reading material." At the risk of sounding smug, I do so in an effort to be deliberately vague. A judicious individual never completely reveals his sources, lest he make himself inessential. Actually, the real reason I answer this way is because I get them from so many sources, any attempt to list them would be exhaustive, incomplete, and unappreciated. It's better that the students, instead, merely look forward to the new collection I work hard to bring to them every day.

Which brings me to a book excerpt I recently read entitled, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," which explores the history of the cookie and the inspiring message inside. Earlier this week, while out shopping with the family, we stopped at one of the kids' favorite Chinese food restaurants. My daughter literally cannot wait until she finishes her rice just to get at the after dinner "treat." She always reads her fortune, then lets me have her cookie (this particular recipe hinted of vanilla.) Her fortune on this day was something to the point of "Make full use of you talents." Mine had less flavor than the cookie itself. Upon leaving, we immediately stopped at a convenient store and purchased the winning lottery numbers that were marvelously revealed to us. This is, of course, untrue: we stopped only to fill gas.

Although I never scramble for new quotes to post in my class, I DO struggle with inspiration for new blog topics. This "writer's block" is characteristic of any individual, required to mass produce on a regular basis, including fortune writers. Until recently, most of the fortunes read and tossed in the U.S. were the creation of one man employed by Wonton Foods of Brooklyn, New York (which produces about 4 million cookies per day.) His name is Donald Lau, who originally got the fortune writing job because he was the only one who could speak English!

At his most prolific writing rate, he could produce approximately 400 fortunes per month. However, the demands of the job drained him. Writing happy epigrams that are gender-neutral, motivating, yet not perceptually controversial is not as easy at it seems. Like anything else, people are going to have their feelings hurt, even if it's as something as banal, trivial, random, and droll as 10 words inside a cookie. For instance, the company received complaint for the following aphorisms:

  • "You will meet a handsome young man."--an elderly woman complained that she had no such interest.
  • "Lighten up a bit."--an overweight couple read the comment literally and did not see the levity in it.
  • "You will soon inherit a large sum of money."--many interpreted this as prognosticating the imminent passing of a loved one.
  • "It's your turn to pick up the check."--someone found it tactless and impugned their right to the new American way: entitlement.
  • "You'll be going on a long voyage."--a woman was furious after her husband passed away shortly after reading this message.
  • "Be as sexy as you want to be."--Never mind the freedom of choice in this statement, people were offended by this gauche statement.
You can see why Mr. Lau turned in his feather quill and ink well for the corporate board room. Americans are too sensitive to even the innocuous. Today, many others have stepped in to fill the void left by Mr. Lau, drawing inspiration from pop culture, which includes reading, non-reading, and other reading material. Writers are now getting their inspiration from a multitude of sources, opting to re-use "safe" messages that have already withstood the onslaught of acute, histrionic, sanctimonious reaction of the American public including Poor Richard's Almanac (recycling Ben Franklin), the Bible (recycling Jesus), Jewish proverbs (recycling God), and song lyrics (recycling Dylan, McCarntney, and Raffi.) Other popular sources are Bartlett's Encyclopedia of Quotations, Movies, Greeting Card sayings, forwarded e-mails, blogs, and sound-bites from the media.

So now everyone knows where I get my own quotes from, which includes all of the above. I would add one source to my list: fortune cookies.

I hope everyone appreciates the concise, profound density of terse wit. It's not easy. Hawthorne said, "Easy reading is damned hard writing." Gauss said, "I hope you'll forgive me for making this letter so long, I did not have the time to write it shorter." A. Non said "Words are like sunbeams, the more condensed they are, the deeper they burn."

So the next time you snap open that little cookie after polishing off your "Pu Pu Platter," appreciate the time, energy, and effort that went into making your day, and you life a little bit better and brighter, and heed the message contained within:

"When in a melon patch, do not bend down and tie your shoes" 27-36-07-43-13

1 comment:

Thomas Korpi said...

That is very convenient that your daughter "shares" her fortune cookie by giving it to you. I seem to remember "sharing" my money, toys and food with you growing up, by "giving" them to you. Boy, you've worked out a great system sir. Nice job keeping it alive!

400 fortunes a month is a lot to do when you're avoiding repeats. I just go to Steve Perry for all my quotes.

"The great pretender, here I go, again." - S. Perry