The True Fortune in “The Fortune Cookie”

Recently, I came across some of my old stories, written when I was still in middle school and high school–not, as today, via a keyboard and word processing program, but with a yellow mechanical pencil, the lead on the pages now faded by the onslaught of years.  I’m not sure why I was rummaging about.  It was one of those quiet, gray, nondescript January days in New England, when the world seems to be slumbering, taking a long nap before reemerging, green, and flowery, in the spring.



I suppose it was just something to do.  I went through long-neglected boxes and plastic tubs, uncovering memorabilia, books I hadn’t flipped through in years, old school assignments, and, yes . . . old stories.  Looking at the sheets of paper, realizing my handwriting had improved not at all since high school, I sat down beside a window and began to read.



The stories are decades old.  Honestly, I had forgotten some of them even existed, but now, with the pages in my hands, the words before my eyes, they came back to me.  Yes.  “The Penny.”  I hadn’t thought of that one in years!  A cliched clunker with a predictable climax–though when I originally wrote it, surely I’d thought it was a nail-biter.  “The Wager,” “The Martian Library,” “The Right One,” “Pea Soup on a Foggy Day” (don’t ask!).  I read them all.  I couldn’t put them down.  It was easy to cringe at the over-the-top writing, the lack of believable characters, the flawed motives, the well-worn plot devices.  Had I really liked these stories when I’d written them?  But then I began to view them with a more forgiving eye.  I’d just been starting out, after all.  They were my first forays into a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and even then, there is always room for improvement.



But there was more there than just words to read and critique.  There were memories, old feelings that came back to the surface after being submerged for decades, hopes and dreams and ways of looking at the world when I was twelve and fourteen and seventeen.

That’s when I pulled out “The Fortune Cookie.”  I remembered that one well.  I had written it as a senior in high school, and back then thought of it as my best work, easily my most accomplished story at the time.  I remember that summer, shortly after graduation, submitting it to a handful of magazines, hopeful, confident that one of them would accept it.  They didn’t.  It wasn’t the first time I’d received rejection slips–but it did hit me harder that summer.  Why didn’t they like the story?  Could I have been so wrong in my assessment of it?  Wasn’t it any good?



Rereading it now, through the cold, hard light of two decades’ worth of perspective and experience, I am able to admit–it’s not a publishable story.  It’s not entirely flawed.  There are some good scenes, some taut dialogue, and the conclusion, unlike the other stories I had written as a teenager, actually does pack a punch.  But it’s still the work of a beginning writer, barely finding his voice, still with so much to learn.  Even today, as I write this post, there is a part of me that is tempted to revise the story, edit it, prune it, sharpen it, make it better.  But I don’t.  And I won’t.



“The Fortune Cookie,” for all its flaws, is irreplaceable–a piece front and center in my own personal literary time capsule.  It belongs to a different era, just before the dawn of the Internet and email, and years before smartphones and social media.  It was written, in that faded mechanical-pencil lead, by a teenage version of myself, approaching the story from a different angle, with a different skill set and a different point of view, than the way I’d approach it today.  As frustrating as it might be to read it now, with all of its warts and fallacies and portions of illogic, “The Fortune Cookie” will remain as it is, in its original format.



I’ve never been one to keep a journal.  I’m not sure why.  I tried a couple of times, but quickly grew bored with it.  I suppose I’ve always needed the added layer of taking my personal experiences and using them in stories that I make up, worlds that emerge from somewhere deep within my subconscious, perhaps mirroring our own, perhaps quite different.  For whatever reason, I’ve always felt a need to create something new, as opposed to reporting on and writing about true events.  But in doing so, I have often felt the lack of a journal as a loss.  There is no record of how I felt on September 6, 1992 or June 29, 2001, or October 5, 1987.  It’s hard not to lament sometimes and wish I had such things recorded, in a weathered and bound notebook that I could access anytime I wanted, that provided a peek, however brief, however terse, into the shadows of my past.



That’s when I stop myself, and come to understand the true value in the poorly written stories from my youth.  When I read “The Fortune Cookie” today, there are certain passages that take me back, completely, to my senior year in high school, to the day when I hunched over the same wrinkled pages I hold now.  I can remember the feelings that raced through me as I wrote the last scene, the way the pencil couldn’t move fast enough, unable to keep pace with the speed and direction of my thoughts.  I can remember sitting down to write the first word, feeling inspired, fired up, and realizing, then as now, that there is no high so dizzying as a new idea that needs to be let loose onto the page.  I can even remember the feelings I had as I wrote specific sentences, the onrush of adrenaline, the urging to press on.



And so, in many ways, “The Fortune Cookie,” and stories like it, are my journals–and will continue to be.  I can imagine a time, thirty years hence, looking back at this very post and thinking, “Remember when?”  Or rereading portions of The Eye-Dancers and recalling exactly the way I felt as I wrote the scene.  It doesn’t end.  It doesn’t have to be confined to a different decade or a previous century.  It will go on as long as words are written, thoughts shared, and hearts and souls expressed onto the printed page.



Do you have any old stories lying around, collecting dust, hidden in a dark corner of the attic or a forgotten folder on your hard drive?  When you come across them, your own “Fortune Cookies,” as it were–perhaps cringing at the words, perhaps smiling, perhaps a little of both–I hope you decide to keep them.

I know I will.



Thanks so much for reading!


The Paradox of Now (If “Now” Truly Exists)

It all seems so straightforward, so matter-of-fact.

We recently witnessed the passing of the torch from 2015 to 2016.  Time to put away the old year and venture forth into the new, complete with resolutions, optimism, goals, and hopes.  The ongoing passage of time, the catalog of days and weeks and months, would appear to be an irrefutable, self-evident, obvious truth,  The clock ticks, we grow older, hopefully wiser, and nothing stands still.



But is it really so obvious?  Is it really the kind of thing we can disregard as a fact so unchangeable, so plain, it’s not even worth thinking about or discussing?

Ar first blush, yes.  We can glance at our calendars, our schedules, our itineraries, and know, unequivocally, that we have this time thing figured out.  It is what it is, as they say.



Or maybe not.


One of the themes in The Eye-Dancers has to do with the way we perceive reality.  Can dreams and “real life” truly be separated by a hard, Maginot-like line of demarcation?  Or are there, possibly, gaps along the edges, where the two dimensions intersect and become enmeshed?



Is the life we know, here, now, on this earth, really the only life we live?  Or are there alternate versions, parallel worlds, going on beside us, without our even knowing it?



Nearly midway through The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski, the class science wiz, explains how he understands all of this . . .

“Everything in existence fits together,” he says.  “The smallest subatomic particle, the worst hurricane, the largest whale, the layers upon layers of reality.  All of it.  And what quantum mechanics tells us is–there are infinitely multiple versions of each of us.  Infinitely multiple versions of our own earth.  You couldn’t even begin to count them all.”



Could it be possible that time works in a similar way?


Then again, what is time, exactly?  Is it nothing more than our means of measuring it, slicing it up like so much fruit, into bite-sized pieces?  Can it really be tamed in such a systemized, linear fashion?



We hear it often:  “Don’t dwell on the past.  The past is over and done.  Don’t live too much for tomorrow.  Tomorrow may never arrive.  And, even if it does, what you do right now, in this moment, will directly affect what happens in the future anyway.  Therefore, focus only on the now.  Live in the moment, firmly where your feet are planted.”



Sound advice!  But let’s delve a little deeper.

If we ask the question, “What is time?” then it seems to follow we must also ask, “What is ‘now’?”  On the surface, the answer seems so elementary, as a certain Victorian detective might say, the question itself appears almost rhetorical.  Because, of course, “now” is “now”!  It can be nothing else.  Right now, I am keying these words into this post (which, hopefully, you are not regretting reading!).  There.  I just keyed in this sentence.  Now.



But wait.  Can’t we slice “now” up even further?  I am keying in this word, this letter, this space . . .  You are reading these words, one at a time.  Which of these is “now”?  Should it be quantified by the minute?  The second?  The millisecond?  The nanosecond?  How precise do we need to be?  This is far from a trivial question.  How we measure “now” greatly affects our perception of it.



If we define the now as a minute in time–perhaps we have something to work with.  A minute isn’t long, but long enough to perform many things, think thoughts, dream dreams.  Living in the now, in this case, seems attainable.



But what if we define “now” as a moment, a breath, a blink of an eye, a beat of the heart, here and gone so fast that by the time it disappears, the next moment arrives, and then the next and the next and the next, one to another merging into a living, continuous, moving thing with no beginning and no end.



If we view “now” like this, time is expanded, and we view it as an eternal, something that cannot really be measured and itemized and saved.  If “now” operates more like a wave than a particle, as it were, more like whitewater rapids than a still, tranquil pond, then what is this term we call time?



“The present is the ever-moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow,” Frank Lloyd Wright once said.

William Faulkner added, “Clocks slay time . . . time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

Where does that leave us?  Are we, like Martin Sloan in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” “trying to go home again,” listening for “the distant music of a calliope, and hear[ing] the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of [our] past”?



Maybe time, as we know it, live it, define it, conceive of it, is an illusion. Maybe “now,” as opposed to something we can take hold of and posses, is, in actuality, a wisp, a billow of smoke rising against a blue winter sky, a flickering flame constantly in motion, never resting, never stationary.  Tomorrow’s dreams and hopes are, in an eye-blink, yesterday’s forgotten memories, tucked away in some vaulted corner of the mind.



It is, by necessity perhaps, a mystery.

Centuries ago, Augustine may have said it best:  “What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know what it is.  If I wish to explain it to him who asks. I do not know.”



Thanks so much for reading!


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