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#360 :: Fortune Cookie

February 9, 2005

A brain tremor emerges from childhood, a submerged snag in the deep, slow-flowing river of memory: I was probably three or four when I put my forefinger and thumb together, tight, pinching nothing and imagining a whale in there, its full tonnage trapped between my fingerprints. It was a huge concept for a kid – tiny density, microscopic mass – and to this day I don’t know where it came from, but I would revisit it every now and then with a sort of breathy little “whoa.”

As I grew, the sensation recurred in odd places: On the job as a reporter: A treeful of egrets, looking delicate as tapers in a cathedral candelabra, perched in the path of a 400,000-gallon oil spill on the Delaware River that was headed their way from the breached hull of a tanker run aground upstream. In pop culture: Frank Miller’s Miho, the tiny, ruthlessly lethal street-waif/assassin who fends off the entire Mafia on tiptoe and sword-point. In nature: swollen, phallic stalactites hanging impossibly in the gaping maw of Carlsbad Caverns, tapering to a point the width of a molecule that grows with near-infinite slowness, a single drop of mineral-laden water at a time – and the huge colony of bats that swarm up out of the cave at night like a seething, black tornado from which they peel off at the top – single file – to hunt for food at sunset.

So it is with this thing. The fortune cookie is a confection of frothy whimsy and deep portent, of crunchiness and clairvoyance. It’s jsut a snack, a crisp trifle. It’s also your fate. You know it’s mass-produced, you can never tell whether you’re going to get a real future-predicting fortune or some worthless aphorism like “It is better to be wise than to be rich.” But it’s your fortune, a tiny oracle to be heeded with some reverence or at least a snicker, as you munch the vessel in which it arrived to stop ever so briefly your headlong rush through life and make you think: Is this true?

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