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Why I’m Not Knocking on Wood Anymore

November 26, 2011

In 1986 the Boston Red Sox famously blew the chance to end the “Curse of the Bambino” and lost to the New York Mets in the World Series. Some people will forever blame the unfortunate first baseman (if you are a fan, I need not write his name) for allowing a ground ball to squirt between his legs. Others, more fairly blame the suddenly ineffective relief pitchers. But at the time I was certain that the real culprit was starting pitcher Roger Clemens, who could be seen in the dugout leaning on the rail and cheering his team on. How was he responsible for his team’s epic collapse long after he’d left the game? It was obvious. He’d shaved. He started the game with a five day stubble, certainly unshaven since his last winning start, and there he was clean shaven, undoubtedly in preparation for the victorious post game interviews. It was an astounding challenge to the jinx monster. If he weren’t to blame, then it was the guys who had delivered the champagne and balloons to the Red Sox locker room before the game was over. Both instances of the most basic anti-jinx protocol.
I grew up observing the usual harmless superstitions. We knew the rules, don’t walk under a ladder, watch out for black cats (though we often had one) broken mirror equals seven years bad luck, don’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, but we didn’t take them overly seriously. My grandfather, a man of inordinate influence on my life, was a big one for knocking wood, and not counting your chickens before they were hatched. After all he was a farmer. The rest of my family knocked wood and I think it was as much in homage to him as an actual belief. During summer of my high school days, I worked at a summer camp and I remember trying to hold my breath as we rode our bikes past the small graveyard down the road from camp. But camp is the time for ghost stories. In college, my buddies and I played and watched a lot of sports. We also developed our theory of the “Jinx Monster”. Rule number one – you can’t out smart the Jinx Monster. Rule number two – don’t challenge the Jinx Monster. Some sports announcers know the rules. They won’t mention a no-hitter, they don’t mentioned the free throw shooter hasn’t missed all season. But more often, they mention it after the fact, “Wouldn’t you know it. I mention this kid hasn’t missed all year and he misses in the biggest game of his life!” ) Of course, rule number one means there is no point in mentioning it if your team needs him to miss. Jinx is a game that can’t be won.
Eventually, our Jinx Monster discussions transcended sports and moved on to the worlds of classes, the weather, and of course, dating. Of course we knew it was a game, kinda, but even saying that out loud was risking the Jinx Monster’s wrath. So where’s the harm and why am I writing about this here? Well, in an insidious habit that actually began to take over my life.
Little by little, these beliefs can give one the sense that we are responsible for things we are not. It may be a good idea to bring an umbrella when the forecast says chance of rain. But we are not responsible for the rain if we don’t bring an umbrella and it rains (though I admit, we may be responsible for our own sogginess). Forgetting our sunglasses does not make it sunny, washing the car does not make it snow. From time immemorial humans have tried to understand and control the world around them. Whether through myths and sacrifices, or prayers to gods. We’ve attempted to keep gods and spirits, big and small, happy or at least appeased by our actions. It is understandable, otherwise we are helpless victims of circumstance. But the other side of that coin is that we come to believe we are responsible for things we truly are not, and feel it is our fault if we forget or fail to pray, sacrifice, knock wood, throw salt over our shoulder).
For years I have been afraid of flying. I am well aware of how safe air travel is. I know the statistics. I know that pilots and flight attendants are not crazy people with a death wish. I know that every day thousands of planes take off and land without incident, and that trying to kill yourself by flying till your plane crashed would be the most inefficient method of suicide imaginable. But none of these facts eased my fear. Fundamentally, I knew that it was my fear holding the plane aloft, and that the moment I was no longer afraid was the moment that the plane would crash. My fear grew much worse over the years. An acquaintance explained it to me thus. Every day, the dog barks at the letter carrier. Every day the letter carrier goes away. The dog learns that it’s barking keeps the family safe from the scary letter carrier and knows he’s done his job. When it first sank into my conscious that planes occasionally crash, I first grew uneasy. But my plane made it, and deep down that association between unease (later to become full-fledged fear) and a safe flight began to grow. Soon enough, I was pretty petrified of flying. I never allowed myself to sleep, or drink, or be medicated during a flight lest it dull my fears. I didn’t want to get over my fear, I believed it was essential to my (and later my family’s) survival. But this summer I became aware of how crippling this world view is. We were traveling in Arizona, visiting really beautiful sights, and I spent much of the summer before the trip and during the trip cowering in sick anticipation of the flying. It spoiled the trip and the summer for me and to a certain degree for my family. Even as I write this essay, I feel pre-flight tension rising. There is a sense that perhaps writing this down will cause a disaster.
It is still difficult for me to make an unqualified positive statement about the future (for example “We’re going to have a great time.”) without knocking wood. But I am getting better at it. And I am going to quit the superstitions, no matter how seemingly minor. By exorcising the little ones I am hoping to eliminate the big ones as well. I want to free myself of feeling responsible for events I truly can not control.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 3:14 pm

    superstitions are a huge part of baseball! don’t ever give them up!

  2. November 26, 2011 3:44 pm

    while i appreciate the sentiment, at least for some of us (perhaps only for me) what started out as a seemingly harmless indulgence turned into a full-fledged and crippling neurosis. and though i do not consider myself cured, i do feel that i can not entertain the little superstitions and hope to avoid their big time ramifications. but thanks for taking the time to read the post.

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