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FIELD NOTES: Very superstitious?

Late night, a week ago Sunday, I watched game three of the American League Division series. The Boston Red Sox, a team I have been a fan of since Carlton Fisk's epic homer in game 6 of the 1975 World Series, played the Tampa Bay Rays. The teams split the first two games of the five-game series, and the team winning this game would be just one win away from advancing to the league championship. The Red Sox had gone out to an early 4-2 lead, but the Rays fought back and tied the game in the 8th, and although both teams put runners in scoring position in extra innings, it was still 4-4 in the bottom of the 13th, and I was beginning to wonder whether anyone was ever going to score. 

I was also getting hungry, so I walked over to our pantry and started rummaging for a snack. The pickings were slim, but I did find a bag of in-the-shell peanuts that had been part of a Christmas gift basket from my economic development partners at NCSE tucked behind the canned goods. I returned to my seat, opened the bag, and began cracking shells. No sooner had I started emptying the contents into my mouth than Christian Vazquez smacked the game-winning home run for Boston. 

The next night, during a similar situation in the bottom of the ninth inning of game four, I once again reached for the peanuts, and once again, Boston almost immediately scored the winning run.

I am not foolish enough to believe that I own a magical bag of peanuts, but you can bet that the next time the Red Sox find themselves in a late-inning jam, I am going back to that bag.  

Update: Obviously, the peanut magic wore off as the Red Sox lost American League Championship Series.

I don't consider myself a particularly superstitious person, but I did a couple of quirky things back when I traveled a lot. When booking a flight, I always checked to see if the digits of the flight number added up to thirteen. I would not necessarily have skipped over a flight if they had, but knowing they didn't made me feel better about it. Similarly, I would always park in row M (for Marek) of the long-term lot at the airport. One time, when there were no spaces available in that row, I opted instead for a spot in row J (for John). 

While the peanuts, flight numbers, and parking spaces are just my own silly examples, they demonstrate some of the reasoning behind more commonly held superstitions. Spectator sports and flying have something in common; they are both activities where the participant has no control over the outcome. In baseball, "your" team's success depends entirely on the players, coaches, and general manager. However invested you may be in that team, you have no influence whatsoever over winning or losing. Similarly, your fate is entirely in the hands of the pilots, maintenance crews, and air traffic controllers when you fly. 

Superstitious behaviors provide an illusion of control, even though we inherently understand they do not make a difference. Avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, not walking under ladders, and turning away from black cats provide imaginary control over forces of luck and fate. And when we do experience an unfortunate or uncanny event, we often use superstition to ascribe some meaning or logic to it.

On the morning of January 3, 1983, I began the four-hour trek from my parent's home in Gypsum to Ohio University to begin the winter quarter. Near the town of Bucyrus, a large black cat ran out into the road in front of my car, and I slammed on the brakes, lurching to a stop just a foot or two short of the scurrying feline. While the old saying that it's bad luck to let a black cat cross your path did pop into my mind, it was quickly forgotten as I arrived on campus a couple of hours later and started unpacking and preparing for the first day of classes. I was a little surprised that my roommate had not shown up by evening, but he only lived an hour away, and I figured he was planning to drive over early the following day.

He did arrive the next morning but was not in any condition to attend class. He had been battling a flu bug for a couple of days, and while he said he was feeling better, he looked like he would have to get significantly better just to die. He swallowed a handful of pills and slept for two days. 

While I felt fine, having someone so obviously contagious in the same room was a source of great distress. I was carrying a hefty class load of 18 hours that quarter, including a couple of challenging core courses. I knew that being out sick for even a few days would pretty much sink me. So, I spent as little time in the room as possible and fretted every time I sneezed, coughed, or sniffled. After a while, the fear of getting sick became a dread that stressed me to the point that I got sick. Very sick. I wound up having to go home mid-quarter. 

Was it the black cat? Not directly or supernaturally, perhaps, but in a way, I think it did play a role. It provided a focal point for my fears of sickness and worked to convince me that I was destined to become ill. And that's the flipside of superstition; the illusion of control so quickly becomes acquiescence to destiny. 


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