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The Philosophy of Cognac

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Here's how the Chinese New Year came and went, falling splat into Lent.

Beware the cross-pollination.

"Pass them fortune cookies!" cried a couple of my fellow diners, grabbing among the dough and cellophane. I was not fooled. I knew well that hands grabbing for fortune cookies would be too busy to grab for the check.

Only Harold, the acknowledged group grouch, made no move on the fortune cookies.

"I want fortunes in my fortune cookies," groused Harold. "All I get is platitudes. Stuff like: 'Speak less of your plans -- you will get more of them done'. This is a fortune?"

I didn't answer Harold while I cracked open the remaining fortune cookie. It read, "Flowers would brighten the day tomorrow for a friend."

"You're exactly right, Harold," I said with disgust. "Who writes these things anyway?"

"My guess is people who flunk outta greeting-card school," said Sam, who once flunked out of sad-sack school.

Then an after-dinner discussion broke out, centering around fortune cookies, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese literature, feng shui and other Orientalisms. We know absolutely nothing about these matters, so it should not have taken long. We were, however, drinking after-dinner cognac, which often adds longevity to nothingness.

"I can't even find anything funny about their jokes," complained Sam, who can't find anything funny about any joke.

"Unlike, say, Americans like Whoopi Goldberg or Carrot Top," I offered.

"Once I heard a joke about Confucius and two boys who argued about when the sun was closest to Earth. The first boy says, 'When the sun rises it is as big as a carriage, but by the time it reaches mid-sky, it is as big as a dish. Don't distant objects look small and nearby objects look big?' The second boy says, 'When the sun rises, it is cool, but when it reaches high noon, it's as hot as boiling water. Does this not prove that it's nearer when it's hot and farther when it's cold?' Now that's supposed to be a joke?"

"I'd rather Rodney Dangerfield," said Sidney. "Now that's funny."

"This is Confucius," cried Mike, holding up his fortune-cookie message. "It says, 'Have no friends inferior to yourself.'"

"I obviously have trouble with this teaching," grumbled Harold. "Just look around this table."

"You gotta dig Tao," insisted Sidney. "Tao is the name given to the unnamable. Tao says, 'If a name can be named, it is not an abiding name.' Now that's some deep stuff."

"About as deep as a pie tin," said Mike.

I picked up the restaurant menu.

"Look here," I said, jabbing my thumb at the back page. "Here's a quote from something called the Lao Tzu Book. It says, 'The Tao produces one, one produces two, two produces three, three produces creation.'"

"I prefer threesomes myself," agreed Mike, "but they're awfully tough to arrange."

"All that Tao is as simple as a Chi Chi hexameter," asserted Harold. "Same as Buddhism. All those owners of small dogs wanna claim they're Buddhists. Here's something from the Inner-Light School of Buddhism: 'When a saying is not kept secret, it is a secret; when it is a secret, it is not kept a secret.'"

"That ain't double-talk," I pointed out. "That's more like triple-talk. Who said that anyhow?"

"I dunno. Maybe the name was Fo Kuo," said Harold. "Or maybe it was Kuo Fo."

"Buddhism gives us words like dharma, karma and nirvana," declared Sam. "It also gives us these words, which give me a headache: 'No energies in causes, nor energies outside them. No causes without energies, nor causes that possess them.' This stuff makes the Alice in Wonderland stuff read like Dick 'n' Jane."

The brilliant conversation lagged a minute as we swirled the new round of cognacs around our glasses before huge gulps. "Last call," pleaded the waiter. "You go soon, yes?"

"You know what bugs me?" asked Mike. "All these people who once were perfectly acceptable bad Catholics or Jews or Methodists. Or even atheists. Now they gotta let everybody know that they are acceptably bad Buddhists or Shintos or Hindus."

"All on the way to inner harmony, a balanced chi and the blessed state of consciousness known as 'manhood-at-its-best.' Tao can even penetrate a Volvo," chipped in Harold.

"You guys are starting to sound like guys who are against everything Asiatic," said Sidney. "Do you mean to tell me that our civilization's wisdom doesn't sound as stupid as theirs?"

Sam got everybody's attention by coughing uncontrollably for a good half-minute. Once he had it, he patted a napkin over his razor-thin lips and exclaimed, "Don't get me wrong, Western philosophy is just as torturous as this stuff we been talking about. Any of you guys ever read Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals? Of course not, but take my word for it. But the difference between Eastern and Western philosophies? It's this: I don't see folks in Spandex walking around proudly saying, 'I'm a Platonist' or 'I'm a Thomist.' But it's considered cool to be a Bodhisattva munching on beignets."

"Hey is this Pilates stuff sister's always talking about some kind of Oriental philosophy?" Mike asked earnestly.

Nobody was quite drunk enough yet to answer Mike. Harold reached into his back pocket and tugged until a beat-up paperback came out.

"Hey, what's that?" yelped Mike. "Is that that book you had about those student nurses on vacation in Yucatan?"

"This is La Rochefoucauld's Maximes. Let me just randomly pick one. Here: 'Most friends give one a distaste for friendship, and most of the pious a distaste for piety.' See? This is wisdom that doesn't have to be translated."

I was about to say something truly dazzling, but the waiter was tugging at the back of my chair and saying, "You must go," over and over.

So, full of Chinese food and philosophy, we tumbled onto the sidewalk. As we shook hands goodnight, Mike played the last trump.

"Bye, everybody. Have a nice day -- unless you already have other plans." And then Mike smiled like a cat with feathers in its mouth.

"I thought that sounded sorta philosophical, huh? Whattya say?"

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