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Signs and portents... and cookies

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There is a fortune from a fortune cookie on my desk from a meal I ate many months ago. “Don’t ignore minor detail; they are the key to your success,” it reads.

Of course, all you astute grammarians out there will be quick to note that there is a glaring error here. The object of this sentence, detail, should be made plural to agree with the plural pronoun they. Now, whether the error was intentionally included to drive home the point of the “fortune,” which is, in this case, more of an aphorism, is impossible to know. Its inclusion does, however, ably illustrate the importance of paying attention to details.

I keep it on my desk for precisely this reason.

But the point is that I tend to assign a great deal of importance to these little scraps of paper, these scraps of paper that are associated with dining in Chinese restaurants in America but which evidence shows may actually have originated in Japan.

From whence they came is subject to debate, but their ubiquity on the American culinary landscape is indisputable.

And their influence stretches beyond the table.

Fortunes from these cookies pop up everywhere from religious sermons to popular culture.

I remember a Catholic priest in my hometown delivering a homily about a young man who met the woman he eventually married over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. He found the fortune he received at that dinner to be filled with portent about the burgeoning relationship and swallowed it and began feeding the fortune with little pieces of cookie to make it come true.

And I remember receiving the following fortune the summer after my seventh-grade year when I had a monster crush on a girl in my class: “There is a secret romance growing, go for it, in spite of your hesitation.”

The fortune stayed with me despite the fact that the romance never bloomed.

I’ve kept many of the fortunes I’ve gotten over the years and now I even look to certain brands of tea or chocolate for my daily dose of destiny.

Whatever it is that compels me to seek these signposts of serendipity, I feel like I am not alone.

Millions of people consult their horoscopes every day and assign significance to the signs of the zodiac.

I think there is something in us that, whether by diversion or divination, seeks some kind of daily guidance, some kind of tether to which we can anchor ourselves against the daily buffetings of temptation and distraction.

If, for instance, you eat a piece of chocolate with the words, “Do all things with love,” printed on the wrapper and you’re reminded to, obviously, do all things with love or at least try to, what’s the harm in that?

Of course, this tendency also can be carried too far.

The novelist and short story writer Hubert Selby Jr., who is one of the most talented practicioners of his craft, despite having little to no formal training as a writer, wrote a story called “Fortune Cookie,” which is included in his collection “Song of the Silent Snow.”

In the story, the main character is a salesman who is down on his luck. He is finishing his lunch in a Chinese restaurant one day when he stumbles across this fortune: “Take courage, today is your day for success.”

The fortune bolsters his confidence as he heads into the world of coaxing and commerce and he is successful for a brief period of time.

But then his fortunes become cryptic and difficult to understand. His confidence becomes shaken and his luck turns while he becomes gradually more and more obsessed with returning to a more favorable state via his daily portion of cookies. He eventually reaches a point of despondency and despair before stumbling upon his horoscope, which buoys his spirits as the story ends.

So when it comes to signs and wonders, I’ve found that they can be helpful, as long as you don’t read too much into them.

Good fortune to you.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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