October 2010 Outs
Ellen Jo Roberts
Everyone has a superstition. Even when folks profess not to, it always turns out they really do. A superstition is a belief in magic, in that somehow we control the how the workings of the world.
By dictionary definition a superstition is…
“1. a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
2. a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.”
Religion is both simultaneously disdainful of and completely reliant on superstition. Religion succeeds because people are willing believe the unbelievable, and have faith in things that cannot be proven by fact. Totems, icons, and spirits all exhibit supernatural elements.
Many think that you must throw salt or knock on wood. It’s not very popular to open umbrellas indoors, or walk under ladders. Break a mirror? Rotten luck for 7 years! A black cat crosses your path? You are in trouble. The legendary fear of the number 13 (clinically called “triskaidekaphobia”) is the reason many skyscrapers go from the 12th floor directly to 14. It’s all around us, in fortune cookies, and lottery tickets, and myriad other neatly packaged disguises. I asked a bunch of folks what sort of things they were superstitious about, and got some interesting responses.
“Black cats, the number 13, walking under ladders, full moons, broken mirrors, chain-letters, accidentally spilling salt, stepping on cracks … I don’t follow any of that hooey.”
“I always pet black cats just in case they are witches in disguise and can grant your wishes.”
I don’t subscribe to most popular superstitions. Mine are very specific, and most are related to travel, perhaps because it is a time we feel more vulnerable to unknown catastrophes. For example, while traveling via airplane I always wear the same shoes on the return trip that I wore on the outbound trip. Same socks or stockings too, if I can. I also never change my watch to whatever time zone I’m visiting. I leave it on Arizona time at all times, despite the constant mathematics it involves, as some sort of assurance I’ll make it home safely. These codes are stringently followed for no real reason.
“Every time I get on a plane, before I board it, I always lay my hands on the plane and knock 3 times on it, and that way it doesn’t crash. And I know that it works because I’ve never been involved in a plane crash.”
While driving in my car I NEVER play any song with the words like these: heat, hot, burn, fire, inferno, flame. I’ve not been able to listen to The Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” for over a decade. I’m confident this has contributed to the longevity of my automobile by keeping it running cool. Also, while topping off the gas, I try to come up with a dollar figure equivalent to something meaningful: the year I was born, my address number, my engine’s displacement in CCs, my brother’s birthday, or sometimes just the good ol’ “1-2-3-4”.
“If I find a coin, it's good luck if it's heads up and I have to put in my shoe, heads up, opposite side of the hand I picked it up with. I think I'm having good luck if I look at a clock randomly and the numbers are something like 3:33, 5:05, 4:04, 9:06, 6:09 or 11:11 and similar combinations. I think I feel like I'm in sync with something. Also, I make wishes if I glance at the clock and it happens to be 11:11.”
My childhood was full of complicated superstitions as a fan of the Chicago Cubs. A highly random, ever-evolving collection of rules somehow helped the Cubs win, or, if not followed, caused them to lose. “The Cubs are on a 4 game winning streak. Each day they won, I picked a dandelion at the park. I’d better keep picking dandelions or they will lose.” This of course, is completely absurd, yet somehow provided a sense of comfort, like I was doing my part, contributing my energy towards the cause. My brother shares similar baseball superstitions.
“If the Cubs win a game when I am there, I will try to wear the same Cubs t-shirt the next time I go to the game,” he explained, “However, I usually try to force myself into realizing that the Cubs winning or losing logically has nothing to do with what underwear I am wearing, or what food I eat, or what gate I enter Wrigley Field. I try to not be superstitious. God knows none of it has worked yet.” The Cubs’ team history of failure is drenched deep in superstition, ever since Sam Sianis put a hex on them in the 1940s for not allowing his pet billy goat to attend a game. Professional sports are fraught with famous superstitions: playoff beards, rally caps, abstaining from sex and/or the changing of socks during a winning streak.
“When I was a rodeo cowgirl I had a lucky shirt and a lucky pair of socks. I wore them until they were literally in tatters, because I felt like I had to have them on in order to perform well.”
Secret wishes on shooting stars, blowing out candles. These things are attempts to control the future by magic and sheer force of will. There is a power in the energy we create as humans.
“I make a wish on all found eyelashes”
“ I make a wish on the first snow of the season”
“I always say ‘God Bless You’ when someone sneezes because I think when you sneeze your heart stops.”
“If a roadrunner crosses the road in front of me, I see it as a sign of good luck.”
“I kiss my hand and then touch the roof of my car (on the inside) if a light turns yellow and I drive through it at an intersection. I've been doing that since I have had my license.”
St. Christopher is the saint of travel. They sell mini St. Christophers for your car dashboard. I have his medallion on my car keys and have since my first car. Makes me think of that old honkytonk truck driving tune refrain, “I don’t care of it rains or freezes, ‘long as I got my plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of my car.” In consulting with my many associates to see what magical little beliefs are a part of their daily lives, a rare few downplayed, rebelled against, or were simply unaware of having any superstitions.
“I think I have no superstitions. I don’t go to church and I’m not a member of any hocus pocus organizations, like the Masons or the Elks, Lions, Tigers or Bears. I am completely rational, like Spock, yet full of human emotions like love, hate and all in between, unlike Spock.
“I don't like being held hostage by superstitions so I break as many as I can.”
“I have NO superstitions that I can think of. Is that odd? Am I an anomaly?
I asked the girl who sits next to me if she has any superstitions and she said she has to put her left shoe on first. She doesn’t know why, though, she just does.”
“Murphy’s Law” is a national observation typically defined as “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Origins are attributed to American engineer, Edward A. Murphy (1918-1990). Murphy’s Law often contributes to a “we’ll all laugh about this someday” type mayhem. Fate is always listening, and ever watchful of being tempted.
“I try not to say ‘WHAT ELSE can happen?’ after a series of bad or unlucky things have happened to me or someone else. Because we may just find out WHAT ELSE can happen.”
“I never say ‘wow, the traffic seems really light today’, or else BLAMMO!”
“I have this feeling if things are going too well, something will happen to spoil it. I actually dread happy occasions ‘cause I know something bad is going to happen.”
“When I was a river guide in the Grand Canyon they used to tell me never sing the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ theme song while on a river trip.”
One time while driving 89A from Sedona to Cottonwood on a Friday the 13th
I made a huge mistake by saying, “It’s Friday the 13th, but nothing bad happened today.” Moments later, a gravel truck with an uncovered load drove past throwing gravel everywhere and breaking a dozen windshields including ours.
For some reason, railroad tracks, bridges, and cemeteries commonly play a role in superstitious rituals. Perhaps it is because they all represent a connection or transition from one place to another. A danger zone, a risky moment, purgatory.
“When I go over railroad tracks I hold metal and say who I love. Weird, right? When I go thru viaducts I hold my breath and make a wish. I think of these superstitions as reminders of what's important daily.”
“I hold my breath driving past cemeteries.”
“I make the sign of the cross 3 times on my steering wheel with my right thumb while driving over railroad tracks”
Superstitions are all around us, in every facet of our lives. It’s not just gypsies tossing the evil eye. It’s on road signs and in skyscrapers, and horseshoes above doorways. It’s at the casino, and on the trinkets we carry in our pockets. It’s in our cars, our homes, it joins us on our travels, in our classrooms, houses of worship, and sports stadiums. It brings us victory, and protects us from misfortune. Knock on wood.
Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale Arizona with Bike Daddy Chad, some famous pets, and assorted vintage Volkswagens. It is never bad luck if any of them cross your path. Well, except for that vicious Chihuahua. You might wanna steer clear of him.
Read all about it at ellenjo.com