Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fortune cookies and fate

I recently finished reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food a delightful cross between memoir and food writing that explores the history of Chinese food in America, or more accurately explores Chinese-American food. It was a lot fun, I urge you to read it for yourself. 

As you may know, I love Chinese food. I also love fortune cookies. I've been saving fortunes for years and have some really good ones:

One year for my birthday I went with friends to a restaurant in Chinatown. My fortune was, "You bring happiness to everyone you meet," while my best friend's fortune read, "Happiness is sitting next to you." She was on my right. No kidding.

I've been thinking lately about the signs we look for in everyday life, how those portents can be woven into story and how the yearning for oracles can change the way we see the world. In this vein I conducted an experiment: I spent a day deliberately looking for omens.
  • I saw no fewer than seven green VW Beetles
  • I overheard or read at least four references to death by heart attack
  • and another three to death by wild animal attack
  • I made seven consecutive green lights
  • and then hit seven consecutive red lights (I was trying not to modify my driving, but who knows what my body was doing in service to this experiment)
  • At storytelling most of the stories were about funerals
  • Three of the phone numbers I called had the same four numbers
  • My shoelace broke.
So what does this mean? I'm about to be hit by a green VW Beetle by a driver having a heart attack? Or I'll be attacked by a swarm of green beetles? I should have played the lottery with those four numbers? Truthfully, I think it has more to do with the human ability to find patterns than anything else; I don't recommend playing this game, it's enough to make you paranoid and twitchy as you see more and more coincidence.

Order out from your favorite Chinese takeout instead. When you get to the fortune cookie, close your eyes, crack it open and enjoy the sweetness on your tongue as you contemplate small wisdom on a slip of paper. After all,

P.S. Don't forget about my follower bribe, extended for a few more days!

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Storytelling vs. lying

(This was first written for the massmouth blog, butI like it enough that I wanted to share it here too.)

The theme of last night's massmouth slam was "Love and Lies," a juicy topic for any storyteller. Ten tellers gave it their best shot so the room was full of succulent love stories and juicy fictions. It got me thinking about the balance of truth and lie in storytelling. This is something I think about a lot, it's almost the meta-theme of my personal blog.

The word "storytelling" can sometimes have the taint of "lie" about it. Parents might ask children, Are you telling stories? When what they mean is Are you lying? Performance storytelling walks a very fine line between truth and lie. For a story to work it much be real, it has to have internal integrity, the teller has to believe it, even if it's entirely fiction. This doesn't mean it's a lie. Even a liars' contest has stories full of truth, even if they are encased in fanciful fiction. Sure, those stories might be made up, might be untruths, but if the stories are told convincingly they are told as if they are true. They are believable stories. The storytelling is well crafted, well performed and not done with the intent to harm. Lies can be harmful and cause separation - storytelling is not harmful and brings people together.

Part of what makes storytelling so powerful is that the audience can witness and participate in the creation of fictional truth. The teller weaves their tale and, no matter how fanciful, if they believe their story the audience is likely to come along for the ride. The implicit contract between teller and listener is that for the duration of the story we all agree on this reality, that what you're saying is true, even if it didn't really happen. The audience can imagine it however they like, the teller can revel in the momentary truth, and then it's done. Because storytelling is such a temporal art form outrageous fictions can become true, can be utterly believable for the span of the telling, and the dissipate into the realm of mermaids and giant blue oxen. Stories use fiction to convey truth.

This means, of course, that storytelling can be pretty dangerous and can be used for evil purposes, but that's different blog post. For now, I want to suggest that storytelling does not equal lying, because stories in the moment of telling are true. The mutually created, consensual reality that exists between listener and teller is more powerful than a lie. Besides, who's to say mermaids and giant blue oxen don't exist anyway?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stuff and nonsense

I've written before about domestic paleontology, my friend's mom's house, packed to the gills with the results of a life of hoarding. The image here, by the way, isn't from her home (I wanted to protect her privacy), but it is representational of what it was like when we started.

We're almost done. After many trips, countless bags of trash (let's see, 8 years x maybe 6 trips a year x an average 25 bags of trash a trip = far too many. And that doesn't include bags to goodwill, stuff hauled to the dump, etc), stuff sold on eBay, given away to worthy organizations, put into storage, offered to family and friends - the house is livable. It's a kind of nice place.

It's a little surreal.

We're not done yet. There are still corners of the basement we haven't explored, we keep finding treasures and nightmares, but now it seems like a place you could build a life in. For the most part, it's a home again. We've reconstructed it by emptying it, building it by creating space. In the course of doing so we've discovered just how much of the structure was held up by detritus; there was a chest we were sitting on while cleaning up in one room. When we looked inside we found it was full of plastic bags, so we emptied it out, thinking someone could use the chest once it was clean. When we sat on it again, it collapsed. The bags were the only thing giving it structural support. The whole house seems kind of like that, as though it's lost its identity without its densely packed innards.

What this has me thinking about is the way the stuff in our lives defines, confines and enshrines us (yeah, I worked for that phrase).

My friend's mom defined herself by her stuff, by all of the potential value and use she saw in what I saw as trash and clutter. We all do this. I'm sure you've met someone whose sense of self and value is wrapped up in their possessions. Their car. Their computer. Their clothing. Their stereo. Something. I know I love my books, seeing them line the walls of our library room makes me smile.  Never mind that I haven't read most of them in years and, if I have to admit it, there are some I've not gotten around to yet. The stuff in my home is certainly a reflection of how I want to present myself to the world and of what I find comforting, but I don't think I define myself as a library (though that could be an interesting topic for another post).

My friend's mom certainly has been confined by her stuff. She could barely move around her home and no one else could move with any ease. She was also tethered to it all; moving away was incredibly painful and even now, years later, she asks how how the house is, how her stuff is, have we thrown away everything she loved. By placing so much value on the stuff that defines us, it limits us metaphorically as well as physically. We become our car, our computer, our clothing, our stereo, our books. It becomes hard to see beyond the limits of that self-definition. But the stuff can't appreciate a friend's kind gesture, a sunset, a concert. We can.

And in the midst of my friend's mom's stuff we keep finding sacred corners, the clearly honored items or those items that honored her. Old letters. Photos of people and especially things she loved. This whole house became a shrine to a life and to a way of living based on the phrase, "Don't throw that out, that's still good!" The stuff helped build a barrier between the family and the neighborhood, the rest of the world. The stuff kept her safe. Frankly, there were times when I worried that the sheer weight of the stuff in her home would literally enshrine her, as it did the Collyer brothers, but fortunately that never happened, they were an extreme case. We all hoard the relics of our pasts, whether in our memory or in our stuff. In my own home I have photographs and carefully sequestered piles of old diaries. The shrines to my past.

Sometimes I play the "what if there was a fire?" game. You know the one - what is the one thing you would grab before you saved yourself from your burning home. The answer has changed over the years. When I was little it was my teddy bear, then my journals, now it's my computer (which seems awfully antiseptic, but years of writing and photos live in there). This tells me a lot about how I define myself and what of my stuff really matters.

I know a woman who lost everything in a fire and she told me once that, while it was the worst thing that ever happened to her it was also the best. She cares less about stuff now. They no longer define her. She feels free.

When I get home from this trip I will, as I always do, look at my accumulated stuff through clearer eyes. I will sort and discard until I again forget that this stuff isn't just a way of declaring my identity, it's a chain. I'm left with the ongoing question of how to find the balance.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday fiction: Migration

 Every day Alex brought the same three things to work: his lunch (tuna on rye, an apple, a store-bought cookie smelling of childhood) a book and a plastic sandwich bag full of breadcrumbs he would feed to the birds on his lunchbreak. His co-workers didn’t notice his routine enough to even snicker. He was all but invisible in his grey coat and black hat. If they had noticed him and whispered behind their hands he would have ignored them.

It was only when things changed that they realized he had always been there.

On that particular Thursday, Alex arrived at the usual time, parked in the usual place, hung up his coat on the wooden hanger he had long ago brought from home. He tucked his lunch, book and bag of crumbs into his lower desk drawer as he always did. He didn’t notice that he had been followed by birds. He simply got to work.

But the birds knew something was different. At first a few hundred birds perched in the manicured trees outside. Soon the bare branches were sagging under the weight of sparrows and goldfinches. Alex kept working while his coworkers clustered around the windows. The cheeps and trills could be heard through the sealed glass while the employees gossiped back.

No one knew what to make of it. At first it was exciting, an anomaly in a day that was otherwise like any other, but soon someone laughingly said, “Hey, it’s kind of like that movie ‘The Birds.’ What do you think will happen when we go out?” and immediately everyone felt small and vulnerable.

They began to discuss their options. Should they call the fire department? The police? The SPCA? Maybe someone should go out and see what happened, sacrifice one for the good of the many. Polly, from accounting, noticed the birds were mostly on the south side of the building. Swirling gales of birds would wheel past one window in particular seeming to make patterns she couldn’t read.

Alex pretended not to notice. He turned his monitor away from the window but kept seeing the flicker of wings in the screen. He closed his eyes and typed without meaning. When the phone trilled, he jumped

Polly’s voice was shrill, Polly who had once asked him what he was reading and didn’t laugh when he spilled his breadcrumbs, so startled to be addressed by someone else. Polly, asking if he knew what was going on, why did the birds want his attention, what was happening?

His sigh came from the soles of his feet, a warm draft that fluttered his inbox.

“I guess they think it’s time.”

“What do you mean, time?”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

They met by the south side exit. She hung back, afraid to step into the whirling chaos. “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They only want me to go with them.”

It was a maelstrom of starlings and crows, sparrows and pigeons. Polly flinched as birds rushed overhead and around but Alex walked out fearlessly.

A tornado of birds wrapped itself around him, a density of feathers and beaks converging until Polly could barely see him reach into his pocket and pull out a baggie of crumbs. Shoes flew out of the rushing cloud, then an hand clutching a jacket and glasses. “Hold these for me, would you?”

She took them just as he let them fall, then she saw breadcrumbs firework high above the storm of birds. They called and swooped everywhere, picking crumbs from the breezes made by their own wings. The force of their flight increased, Polly was pushed back to stand against the building and Alex’s outstretched arms seemed to grow brighter and broader. She crouched, clutching his jacket to her as the birds flew wildly, pulling at her hair with every wingbeat. She put her hands over her head until the air around her began to subside and light seeped through her fingers. She looked.

The birds were gone, V's high in the sky pointing south. All that was left of Alex were his wingtip shoes, one fallen on its side. When her co-workers asked, she said, “I think he migrated.”

When he didn’t return to work the next day or the following week, Polly insisted they put out a birder feeder and bath. “You never know,” she commented, “He might get hungry and stop by someday.”

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bribe. But a cool one.

I love writing this blog. I'd like to share it with more readers so, I'm trying to increase my readership. Throughout February if you sign up to be a follower of this blog then send me an email via my profile with your address I will send you a handmade postcard or bookmark. I will try to contact anyone who signs up to be a followers, but I can't promise I'll be able to reach you; you're more likely to get something if you send me an email and I write back.

I'll repost this a couple times through then month to see if it helps. I'd welcome any suggestions you may have to increase readership and I'd love it if you let your friends know about this blog. 

On the left is a bookmark I made sometime ago. You won't get this one, but you'll get something else neat!

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Kindred blogging souls

I am at Blissdom X, a women's blogging conference in Nashville, TN. A few things have struck me right off the bat.
  1. How lovely to spend time with people who care passionately about the written word! I'm not the only word nerd here!
  2. Technology has changed then nature of reading, writing and connecting. I know, this is obvious, but seeing it all at once is fascinating. Everyone has with them at all times in one relatively small bag:
    1. a smart phone
    2. an electronic as well as paper business card (ConAgra gave every one a Poken as a gift, thanks!)
    3. a computer
    4. a digital camera
      A few nights ago I watched a science fiction show produced in the mid-eighties. The computers there were enormous, filing cabinet sized, and they were showing the future. The high-tech car didn't have a phone or GPS. My iPhone has thousands of time the computing power of what went to the moon.
  3. I went to an all-girls' high school. Whenever I'm in the company of a large number of women I am in high school again. I keep expecting to turn a corner and see the pink marble of my high school instead of this elegant hotel. I'm so glad this isn't high school.
 More quick posts as we move through the weekend.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From dark to light

Today is Groundhog Day. Or Candlemas. Or Brigidmas. Or Imbolc. It's the midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and the time when we might believe that winter will end and spring will come.

It's a time to take a deep breath and take note: There is more light later in the day. The buds are thinking about fattening up. Soon the ground will soften and the green mouths of crocuses will sip the air. Brigit's animal, the groundhog, sniffs the air to see if it's time to emerge into the world.

Brigit or Brigid of Kildare (the goddess/saint of poetry, creativity and healing) is honored with an eternal flame that burns through the dark days, reminding us of the fire within, of our own ability to create even in the cold. Today reach inside and feel the warmth of your personal spring. What is ready to bloom? What will you release into the world as the days become longer, the leaves prepare to unfurl and (regardless of what the groundhog predicts) the Earth shifts on its axis and spring comes to the Northern hemisphere?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, February 1, 2010

Signs from the universe

I can't help it. I look for signs and portents everywhere, even though I know that the patterns I find are most likely inconsequential and random. Humans are exquisitely good at finding patterns, after all.  But I still look.

I make wishes when I blow out birthday candles, when the clock reads 11:11, when I see a shooting star. I ask questions of the universe and look for an answer in the sighs of the trees or overheard conversations. Come on, I know some of you do this too.

Even doing all of this, I know it's silly. I don't let it rule my life; I don't think of myself as a superstitious person. I don't check my horoscope and then hide inside if it says I'm going to have a bad day. I treat it as a game. But sometimes synchronicity is a joy to behold.

I was in a Chinese restaurant the other day, enjoying spicy soup and dumplings. I had a good book. I was happy. Next to me were two men, pouring over their plans for a new interactive game, I assume some kind of multi-player online game. For the most part they were discussing technical details and, while I listened occasionally (it is in my nature) I stuck to my book.

Then one of them said, "I just wish I liked our characters more. We need a better story." My ears perked up. And they went back to the technical details of the game.

As I finished my meal I thought I know a thing or two about story. Maybe I could help. Or would that be too intrusive? I opened my fortune cookie and it read, "An opportunity will be presented to you." Who am I to argue with a fortune cookie?

I leaned over and said, "Excuse me. If you still don't like your characters and story, maybe I can help. I'm a storyteller." I gave them a card. They looked perplexed. I bid them a good day and left, feeling exhilarated and awkward.

That night a good friend showed up unexpectedly with Chinese take out. Far be it from me to look a gift moo shu in the mouth; we ate together, then opened our fortune cookies. Mine read, "You have done an excellent job seizing a recent opportunity." I was stunned. How could this not be a sign?

I wish I could tell you they called the next day and I'm off to a new career as a game writer. That would be the movie-ending to this story. But this isn't a movie, so I have to admit that they haven't phoned. Still, it was a nice example of the universe tossing me a synchronicity bone. I enjoyed it and will keep looking for signs and portents, knowing that, while they not point me on the one true path, they certainly amuse me as I meander on my way.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails