writing on the wall

Nursery rhymes and playground songs are full of superstitions and hare-brained predictions. Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back. Monday’s child is fair of face. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy. Who knew that counting magpies could determine so much?

In my training-wheels days, deciphering my fate through the patterns in the larger world made a lot of sense. I had no qualms attributing larger shifts in my universe to worn pavement, the arbitrary logic of the calendar, the arithmetic of flocks of birds. Fed fat with children’s verse and stories rife with clues and omens, wishes-come-true and dire portents, I began to formulate my own system of superstitions. An even number of stairs was auspicious. A note or flower pressed inside a library book obviously translated into good fortune. A phone ringing three times — not two, not four — promised bad news.

I still try to snatch the phone off its cradle before that third ring, and I’ll be sure to sprint to the receiver each time it rings during job market season. I’ll imagine a search committee chair on the other end of the line, counting each ring. It rings once, I have an interview. Twice, perhaps a job. Three times? The chair has obviously changed her mind and is calling to tell me about that typo on the first page of my CV. “Did you really mean to say you were from Horston, Texas? Ridiculous! We’re shredding your application right now. Do you hear the ominous whir of the shredder? Do you hear it!?!

Intellectually, I know these small details have little to do with success or failure. Stumbling on a crack on the sidewalk can’t fracture a spine, and counting magpies won’t bring happiness or heartbreak. But somewhere in my lizard brain I both enjoy and fear the simple equations of superstitions. I appreciate their immediacy: the sense of urgency they lend to trivial situations and their assumption that something as simple as bird-against-sky is legible. Read the world and know what’s next.

And nothing puts me in a superstitious frame of mind quite like a fortune cookie. Sure, I’ve disparaged them in the past, but I do so with a sideways glance at the swirling cosmos and a hidden sense of respect for whatever a small slip of paper may reveal to me. It was with ambivalence, then, that I cracked open two cookies last week. I was alone in my hotel room at an academic conference, a little greasy-fingered with take-out veggie lo mein and a little heavy-hearted with the feelings of inadequacy conferences tend to inspire in an anxious person like myself.

Fortune cookie #1 told me that I should bide my time for success is near. Not bad! Fortune cookie #2 revealed that I should be prepared to accept a wondrous opportunity in the days ahead. That word wondrous rung a little false, perhaps. Wondrous? Really? Should I expect a stray twenty dollar bill on the pavement, or are we talking leprechauns and winged monkeys? And how to I prepare to accept a winged monkey, anyway? A litterbox and a stash of bananas?

Before I tossed the fortunes in the garbage, I turned them over for my mini language lesson. Fortune cookie #1: “Market, shì chang.” Fortune cookie #2: “March, san yuè.”

Propitious, I’d say, for a job market that begins to resolve itself into new hires in the spring months.* I’ll be keeping these two tacked to my bulletin board.

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* I have no idea if the cookie intends March the month or march the verb. I also don’t want to know. I am interpreting my cookie as I see fit.

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3 thoughts on “writing on the wall

  1. Vee! Have we discussed my irrational investment in fortune cookies? Three days before our wedding, we went to Great Wall and my fortune was “Stop searching. Happiness is just next to you.” Then, the day I found I was expecting Caroline after the craptastic month I’d had, I got simply “You will get what your heart desires.” I have both of those tucked away. Of course, the irony is that I can’t eat fortune cookies because they contain wheat, but I think as long as I open them, they are mine. 🙂

  2. Pingback: unsolicited advice! just what you wanted! | connecticut carrot

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